Auto Brewery Syndrome

In theory, it sounds somewhat amazing: being able to get drunk without drinking a drop. Surely, Baudelaire would’ve tauted such an existence. But if you speak to any of the approximately 60 people who have stepped forward as victims of auto-brewery syndrome, it’s nowhere near as amazing as you’d expect.

Also known as gut fermentation syndrome, auto-brewery syndrome is characterized by a phenomenon in which yeast that’s trapped in the small intestine ferments sugars into ethanol, leading to drunkenness. The condition first became evident in a Japanese study involving patients with chronic yeast infections. Apparently, the patients all had an abnormal liver enzyme, as the research described, meaning that they lacked the capacity to remove alcohol from their bodies.

It’s normal to have yeast in one’s intestines – everyone does – and in fact everyone’s body produces a small amount of alcohol when that yeast interacts with carbs and sugar. But for the Japanese patients, the extra yeast from the infection,combined with the abnormal liver enzyme and a high-carb diet, led to an inability to break down the alcohol quickly enough. Instead it fermented into ethanol. And voila, the intoxicated feeling.

Before receiving a diagnosis, some who suffer from the disease had a hard time convincing others that they weren’t closet drinkers. Nick Hess, a British man inflicted with auto-brewery syndrome, told the BBC that his wife searched their house for hidden bottles of booze after witnessing his symptoms, which included headaches, stomachaches, and vomiting. For Matthew Hogg, who spoke with Vice about living with the disease, symptoms also included mental impairment and mood disruptions. He would wake up feeling hungover–and spend the day incapacitated, without any of the fun of the night before.

As you can imagine, trying to get through a day with the constant risk of unwanted intoxication is quite difficult. Those afflicted with the disease must adapt their diets to reduce the fermentation in their intestines. This means eating less grains and carbohydrates – bagels, pasta, and other refined sugars are the worst offenders. It can also mean anti-fungal drugs. It means sticking to a diet of meat, nuts, and seeds. Going paleo isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.

Hogg’s life was dramatically affected by the syndrome. Once the condition took hold, he told Vice, “I found myself struggling badly at school when, in my mind, I knew I shouldn’t be having any problems. I also had to quit sports because I’d feel exhausted after a gentle run and found myself struggling to get up in the mornings. I felt frightened, not knowing what was happening to me, as well as frustrated and angry that I was unable to function at the high level I was used to. My social life suffered badly, and I felt alone and detached from my friends and lacked the energy and motivation to be a part of things.”

As of now, reported instances of the disease are rare and the research is scarce. Medical professionals like Barbara Cordell, head of nursing and health sciences at Panola College in Texas, acknowledge that more investigative work needs to be done in order to find a cure. Cordell has treated patients with auto-brewery syndrome, and co-authored a report on the disease. She also believes that skepticism regarding the legitimacy of auto-brewery syndrome need to change as well. “Ultimately,” she told the BBC, “I’d just like doctors to keep an open mind if someone comes to them with these symptoms.”