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Overeating Bursts Stomach

Can eating too much make your stomach burst?

Can you actually eat yourself to death?

By Melissa Dahl

“I ate so much I’m about to burst!”

Someone at your Thanksgiving table will likely say some version of this tomorrow, after you’ve all stuffed your faces with turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and the rest. But how much would you have to eat in order for your stomach to actually burst? Is that even possible?

“Interestingly enough, you can rupture your stomach if you eat too much,” says Dr. Rachel Vreeman, co-author of “Don’t Cross Your Eyes … They’ll Get Stuck That Way!” and assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. “It is possible, but it’s very, very rare.”

A handful of reports over the years document the tales of people who literally ate themselves to death, or at least came dangerously close: Japanese doctors wrote in a 2003 case report that they believed it was a 49-year-old man’s “excessive over-eating” that caused his stomach to rupture, killing him. And this 1991 case report describes a similar “spontaneous rupture” in an adult’s stomach “after overindulgence in food and drink.”

Normally, your stomach can hold about one or one-and-a-half liters, Vreeman says — this is the point you may reach if you overdo it tomorrow, when you feel full to the point of nausea. Pathologists’ reports seem to suggest the stomach is able to do OK handling up to about three liters, but most cases of rupture seem to occur when a person has attempted to stuff their stomach with about five liters of food or fluid. (One of the reports Vreeman came across described the sad case of a woman whose stomach contained 12 liters of stuff.)

It takes a certain amount of misguided determination to manage to override your natural gag reflex and continue to eat (and eat and eat), which is why, not surprisingly, reports of ruptured stomachs caused by overeating are most common in people with some sort of disordered eating, or limited mental capacity, Vreeman says.

“They have unusual eating habits to an extent that their bodies’ reflexes no longer respond as they normally do,” Vreeman explains. “Their bodies’ reflexes have been ignored or abused for so long that they no longer vomit at the appropriate time. And then once the stomach gets to this extremely distended point, the stomach muscles are too stretched out to be strong enough to vomit the food out.”

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