Bangungot: Unveiling the science behind the bogeyman of sleep

  • Visceral nightmares, sleep paralysis, and unexplained death are how most of us understand bangungot. But what’s the science behind it?

The phenomenon of bangungot has always left more questions than answers. Arguably the most famous case of suspected bangungot is Rico Yan. The ’90s heartthrob was discovered dead in his Palawan hotel room at the age of 27—at the peak of his fame and supposedly in good health. 

Fans were shocked and horrified at the news. And being a famous figure, people got to talking. Rumors surrounding his death swirled around in the media and in marites circles regarding what could have possibly ended the actor’s life so swiftly and sadly. 

Eating a meal like this before sleeping is thought to contribute to possible bangungot. Photo by Marco Guerrero on Unsplash

One theory that has stood the test of time, though, was that the actor maybe had too much to drink or eat the night before and bangungot was to blame. 

While Yan’s official cause of death was reported to be acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis, his death is still tied to bangungot in the public mind. 

The understanding of bangungot in colloquial circles tends to vary. Some describe it as a visceral, nightmarish sleep paralysis experience brought about by a heavy meal or too much liquor before sleeping. Others (like myself) regard it as a sudden, unexplained death during sleep. 

Medically speaking, what is bangungot? 

While “bangungot” isn’t a medical term, the medical community has taken note of (and further studied) this phenomenon. The scientific community has dubbed it sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome or SUNDS. 

Another interesting thing to note is that bangungot isn’t a universally occurring phenomenon. SUNDS mostly occurs in parts of the world like the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan. In Thailand, the phenomenon is called lai tai, and in Japan, it’s referred to as pokkuri. 

Bangungot is said to mostly affect males from the ages of 20 to 40.

The phenomenon has also been reported in Hawaii (where it’s called dream sickness) and by South Asian immigrants to North America. 

Whatever the name, though, the basic facts stay the same. 

Bangungot is said to mostly affect males from the ages of 20 to 40. The deaths always occurred in their sleep, most notably after a large meal the night prior, and all of the victims were supposedly in good health with no known pre-existing medical conditions or comorbidities. 

It’s a mystery that has eluded the medical community, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any promising theories. 

What could bangungot possibly be? 

In 2011, a group of medical doctors from the Philippines published a paper on the possibility that bangungot could be similar or related to the Brugada syndrome, a rare type of cardiac arrhythmia that can be passed down through genetics. 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

The doctors noted some similarities between Brugada syndrome and bangungot, but the link was not clear enough to establish a relationship between the two. 

Another theory is that bangungot could actually be acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis—which was Rico Yan’s reported cause of death. Acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis is the very sudden inflammation and swelling of the pancreas. 

There are two different kinds of pancreatitis: chronic and acute. Chronic pancreatitis may take time to develop and has a higher possibility of being found and treated in time. Acute pancreatitis can develop very quickly (like in the span of a couple of hours) and in some cases, can be fatal. 

While both theories seem to be strong contenders in the mystery of bangungot, the scientific community has yet to find conclusive, incriminating evidence that links Brugada syndrome or acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis to bangungot.

Due to the swift and almost undetectable nature of acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis, it’s another one of the leading theories behind SUNDS. 

The common denominator found among the deaths attributed to this type of pancreatitis is the presence of gallstones and alcohol in the victim’s system. 

While both theories seem to be strong contenders in the mystery of bangungot, the scientific community has yet to find conclusive, incriminating evidence that links Brugada syndrome or acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis to bangungot.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to avoid it, though. 

Avoiding bangungot

Generally speaking, the best way to avoid bangungot is to take care of your health. No matter how fun big meals are during the evenings, it’s best to avoid any triggers that might go off while you’re sound asleep. In both Brugada syndrome and acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis, consuming alcohol is a possible trigger that may lend to the fatality of both diseases. 

If bangungot runs in your family, there are also some diagnostic medical tests you can take to see whether you might have either of the diseases strongly linked to the phenomenon. 


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The Brugada syndrome is genetic and can be passed down from one parent to their child, so an echocardiogram can be utilized by doctors if you’re worried about possibly having it. Blood tests for certain pancreatic disease markers can also help doctors determine if you’re at risk for acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis. 

Other things that can possibly help you avoid bangungot are living an active lifestyle and avoiding high-fat foods and smoking.

It’s important to note that the chances of bangungot (and both Brugada syndrome and acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis) are low. The recorded cases also only seem to affect men. Still, taking care of your health in general is always going to pay off in the end. © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.


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