How Do Natural Killer Cells Work?

How Do Natural Killer Cells Work?
How Do Natural Killer Cells Work?

There is not a cooler name for a cell than Natural Killer Cell, but how do natural killer cells work and how did they get such a dangerous-sounding name?

Answering these questions came in a roundabout way, with an ingredient that sits on most of our countertops.

I’ve been encouraging my family to avoid salting their food and to spice it up with extra black pepper instead.

There was no salt shaker on our dinner table last night. But while we passed the black pepper around, one of my kids asked, “What are black peppers good for?” 

The answer is pretty thrilling: They increase natural killer cell activity!  So…

How Do Natural Killer Cells Work?

The human immune system functions like an army. Natural killer cells (NK) are its leading strike force against abnormal cell growth. 

In the war against invading pathogens, cancer, and virus-infected cells, these little ninjas are our first line of defense. And they’re not to be trifled with!

NKs travel throughout the body performing immune surveillance. Consider them your personal, 24/7 security detail!

During my college years, I worked the night shift as a security guard. Throughout my shift, I’d roam every floor of my building with a flashlight, looking for intruders.

As I was sleepily conducting my rounds one night, a guy stepped out in front of me. Unarmed – and with only my security radio to call for help – I gripped my flashlight a little tighter.

He walked directly toward me with a stack of papers in his hands. Sizing him up, I noticed his employee badge. Like me, he was just working late on the job.

He ignored me, and I continued my surveillance. But my heart was racing a bit faster – and all my grogginess was gone.  

How do natural killer cells work? Better with lots of black pepper!- Electron micrograph of human natural killer cell National Institutes of Health CC BY-NC 2.0
Electron micrograph of human natural killer cell National Institutes of Health CC BY-NC 2.0

But why does my experience relate to the question, “How do natural killer cells work?”

Because natural killer cells automatically search other cells for their “employee badge” proteins (known as Self MHC-1s.) Normal cells have Self-MHC-1s and when the NK checks them there is no activation. However abnormal cells don’t have the proper identification. 

Cells without the employee badge had better watch out because, unlike me, natural killer cells are very well-armed. After zeroing in on their target, they shoot out granules to puncture abnormal cells with tiny holes.

But they don’t kill on contact. Why?

Because the last thing they want is to have an abnormal or infected cell explode and spread disease or viruses to other cells. 

Instead, NKs release tiny, grenade-like granzymes into the “wounded” cells, where they trigger a big, cell-contained POP!

Medically, this process is called apoptosis, or programmed cell death. And this is how natural killer cells received their dangerous-sounding name! 

The Natural Killer Cell-Black Pepper Connection

We call them “natural” killer cells because they don’t require immune-system activation or prior exposure to recognize the bad guys.

They’re naturally equipped to seek and destroy at a moment’s notice. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t help empower NKs’ performance.

Just like a real army, these little killers grow stronger with diet and exercise. And black pepper is one of their favorite foods!

How do natural killer cells work? Better with lots of black pepper!
How do natural killer cells work? Better with lots of black pepper!

Video gamers love loading their characters up with power-up treasures. Each time they obtain a floating orb, the game console “dings,” and the characters’ energy level shoots up!

So it is with black pepper and NK, according to findings from UAE’s American University of Sharjah study on the anti-cancer effects of black pepper and cardamom extracts. They concluded, 

“Remarkably, it is evident that black pepper… significantly enhances the cytotoxic [cell killing] activity of natural killer cells.”

In this NutritionFacts video, Dr. Michael Greger reviewed the UAE study’s graphs. He observed that even when the number of killer cells remained the same, adding enough black pepper and cardamom extracts enabled them to destroy “ten times more cancer cells.” 

We need to feed these bad-ass warriors. So, what do I recommend?

You might have a salt shaker and black pepper shaker on your countertop.

Since our diets contain far too much salt. Why not empty your salt shaker in the garbage and refill it with black pepper. Then, the next time you sit down to dinner, double-fist both pepper shakers.


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