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December 10 2021

Acute Hemorrhagic Pancreatitis: Unraveling the Bangungot Mystery

“Do not sleep when your stomach is full” is a common belief in the Philippines that it is almost doctrine. According to superstition, bangungot happens when a person sleeps on a full stomach. It’s an old wives’ tale claiming that overeating just before going to bed might cause a person to rise and moan (bangon at ungol; where bangungot got its name), have difficulty breathing while sleeping, or in unfortunate cases, mysteriously die in their sleep. It is also closely related to a nightmare.
Many Filipinos believe that if someone mysteriously dies in their sleep, they have had a nightmare so bad that it led to a bangungot. They are aware of this belief and are often frightened at the possibility of experiencing it. However, there is a real scientific cause behind this seemingly strange phenomenon.

What is bangungot?

Bangungot is not exclusive to the Philippines. Other Asian countries have names for this peculiar phenomenon as well. For example, in Thailand, it is called lai tai, and in Japan, it is called pokkuri, all with similar instances of a person mysteriously dying in their sleep.
In Philippine folklore, bangungot is also linked to batibat, a vengeful hag-like mythical creature responsible for the mysterious death in a person’s sleep by sitting on their chest until they run out of breath.
It is difficult not to ask for a more understandable explanation, especially when looking at these origin stories. But, unfortunately, there is a lack of studies regarding this phenomenon, leading scientists to tag it as sudden and unexplained death in sleep (SUDS).
However, one medical condition is suspected of causing death in bangungot cases.

Acute Hemorrhagic Pancreatitis: The Most Probable Cause?

Pancreatitis has two categories, chronic disease and acute disease, the latter being the one associated with SUDS. Acute pancreatitis (AP) could be the most widely accepted theory that causes bangungot. Acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It often occurs suddenly and quickly, and in some cases, could be fatal.
So, what is it exactly? Acute pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas unexpectedly becomes swollen. Doctors and medical experts say that acute pancreatitis is a life-threatening situation. It can result in necrosis or tissue death and even cause multi-organ failure due to sepsis. The most common causes of pancreatitis, both acute and chronic, are gallstones, heavy alcohol use, genetic disorders of the pancreas, and some medicines.
In a journal published in 2007, a study was done from 1991 to 2001 and had reviewed 3,305 autopsies at Turkey’s Council of Forensic Medicine. Of these, only 12 cases (0.36 percent) involved sudden death due to acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis without symptoms, which led the researchers to advise forensic pathologists that deal with sudden deaths without symptoms to consider examining the pancreatic region and pay close attention to pancreatitis-related complications.
The researchers found these 12 sudden-death cases with acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis as the cause of death. In these 12 cases, all had a hemorrhage, edema, and fatty necrosis in the pancreatic region.
Most cases of acute pancreatitis have gallstones and alcohol as the main etiological factors; however, only four out of the 12 cases had a history of chronic alcohol consumption. Generally speaking, according to research, over 10% of all acute pancreatitis reported are labeled idiopathic, with causes unknown.
So, what are the best ways to prevent acute pancreatitis from happening, especially this holiday season?

Tips to Prevent Acute Hemorrhagic Pancreatitis

  • Refrain from binge drinking alcohol
  • Heavy alcohol consumption can have serious toxic effects on the body. It is also one of the top causes of acute pancreatitis, so it only makes sense to refrain from consuming too much alcohol. Protecting the pancreas reduces the risk for pancreatitis.
  • Avoid smoking
  • A review of existing studies done in 2019 found that smoking adults had 1.5 times more probability of developing acute or chronic pancreatitis than non-smokers.
  • Watch what you eat
  • Avoid food high in fat, specifically saturated fat like fried food, as this can strain the digestive system and force it to work overtime, causing endocrine diseases. Instead, focus on consuming a low-fat, high protein, and high fiber diet complete with all the essential nutrients that the body needs.
  • Treat gallstones
  • When diagnosed with gallstones, the most effective way to prevent an attack of pancreatitis is by having the gallstones removed. In more severe cases, the gallbladder itself might have to be removed to help prevent future problems.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle
  • Keeping the body healthy allows the pancreas to work better. Regular activity decreases the chance of fat buildup in the pancreas, keeping it healthy.

Unraveling the Mystery of Acute Pancreatitis

Studies are still ongoing regarding the relationship between acute pancreatitis and sudden deaths while sleeping. However, the bottom line is whether or not this endocrine disease is the cause for the mysterious deaths in parts of the world, the best way to address it is through prevention.
Taking care of one’s body is the most effective way to ensure a long and healthy life, away from any disease. It is also crucial to know the signs and symptoms of a possible health condition. With this, do not be afraid to reach out to MakatiMed for consultation and testing.
Makati Medical Center is a world-class healthcare service provider that offers state-of-the-art facilities and treatment by competent medical professionals that make holistic health within reach.