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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Michael Tan talks about bangungot

THE SCIENCE COUNCIL OF ASIA, CONSISTING OF SCIENCE research councils from throughout the region, held its 10th conference last week here in the Philippines. I presented a paper on the need to look at cultural angles in relation to health and illness. I thought I’d share with Inquirer readers the case study I used in my paper. This is the case of bangungot, which I’ve written about in other columns, and which is also extensively described in my book “Revisiting Usog, Pasma, Kulam.” At the conference I gave an update on bangungot and similar ailments.

Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Deaths (SUND) is a term first used by the US Centers for Disease Control to refer to a number of folk illnesses. Folk illnesses are medical conditions which are given a name in a particular culture, for example usog and pasma. They do not have exact equivalents in Western biomedicine but are very real in the sense that they cause distress, suffering, pain and sometimes even death.

One of the folk illnesses covered by SUND is bangungot, which can mean both a nightmare as well as a pathological condition described as troubled sleep that can be fatal.

The folk explanation for bangungot is that the victim increases risks by going to bed right after a full meal, has nightmares and might even die if unable to regain control of his body. Victims are supposed to wiggle a toe or finger to regain that control. People who are susceptible are also advised not to sleep alone because if they have an attack, someone should be around to wake him up.

Note that the Ilokanos attribute bangungot to batibat, a supernatural creature described as an old woman. If the batibat’s dwelling is disturbed, she wreaks vengeance by sitting on the victim’s chest when he’s sleeping, eventually causing death.

The batibat explanation reminds us of a universal recognition of problems relating to sleep, with batibat-like characters reported in many other cultures. The English word nightmare itself is derived from “night” and “mare,” a female horse, referring to the feeling of heavy animal (the mare) or a spirit sitting on the chest.

What are the medical studies that have been conducted on bangungot?

An early report published in 1933 and involving autopsies of bangungot victims, found pancreatitis, which was attributed to our high salt and high carbohydrate (rice) diets. Other reports in American journals involved apparently deaths of healthy Filipinos who were in the US Navy. The reports repeated earlier theories about diet and pancreatic dysfunction.

In the 1970s, several unexplained deaths among apparently healthy men were reported among Hmong refugees who had migrated to the United States. US Centers for Disease Control coined the term SUND. The Lao term for this ailment is dab tsuam (pronounced da cho), which again involves the supernatural. The stress angle was explored here.

In 1990 and 1991, several deaths were reported in Singapore among Thai construction workers. The Thai term for the ailment was lai-tai (sleep death). Medical investigations speculated cardiac problems and potassium deficiency as causes.

In the reports on SUND, there are also frequent references to the Japanese pokkuri or sudden death. Japanese researchers, usually forensic experts, point to cardiac problems, with probable dietary
factors, as the cause of death.

SUND: Pinoy Kasi By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 06/22/2010

And you can read Trese's explaination of what the bangungot really is at The Diabolical:


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