Emily Baines
January 01, 2016 9:54 am

At first, it may sound like a beer drinker’s dream: A disease where your digestive system becomes its own tiny brewery. For a woman in upstate New York in the fall of 2014, it was a nightmare.

The woman, whose name has remained anonymous due to medical confidentiality, was unaware on October 11, 2014 that she suffered from “auto-brewery syndrome,” a disease that causes the digestive system to convert ordinary food into alcohol. So imagine her surprise and horror when an officer pulled her over for driving erratically and her breath-test came back with a blood-alcohol level of .33%!

Luckily for the woman, her lawyer Joseph Marusak had read Barbara Cordell’s 2013 case study of a 61-year-old man who had been experiencing episodes of debilitating drunkenness without drinking liquor. Cordell immediately referred Marusak to Dr. Anup Kanodia of Columbus, Ohio. But, as is always the case with doctors, there was a wait.

Ever thorough, Marusak used the time before his client’s appointment with Dr. Kanodia to arrange for two nurses and a physician’s assistant to monitor his client for a day to document she drank no alcohol, and to take several blood samples for testing.

“At the end of the day,” Marusk reported, “she had a blood-alcohol content of 0.36% without drinking any alcoholic beverages.” The woman also bought a breath test kit and blew into it every night for 18 straight days, registering around 0.20% every time.

While people in cases described by Cordell sought help because they felt drunk and did not know why, Marusak said that was not the case with his client. “She had no idea she had this condition. Never felt tipsy. Nothing,” he said. Imagine being drunk and not even knowing it!

Dr. Kanodia, after further study, diagnosed the woman with auto-brewery syndrome, also known as gut fermentation syndrome. She immediately prescribed a low-carbohydrate diet, which brought the situation under control. The woman’s case was dismissed on December 9th, leaving her free to drive during the holidays (and the rest of her life) without restrictions. That must have felt like an early Christmas gift.

Dr. Richard Peek, a professor of medicine and cancer biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, suggested to ABC News that although the cause of auto-brewery syndrome are not fully understood, there is one likely culprit: the gut.

“Yeast are normally in the GI tract and the commonality of all these case reports is they have an increased number of candida,” Peek said. “When [yeast] ingest a meal that has a high amount of carbohydrates, they metabolize the carbohydrates into ethanol.”

Peek said the alteration of the gut’s bacteria, called the microbiome, has far-reaching effects. Auto-brewery syndrome is one of the most drastic.

“These observations show the importance of gastric microbiota or microbiome in altering functions,” Peek said. “It really can regulate or cause disease such as irresistible bowel syndrome and it’s been linked to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, fatty liver.”

While more study is needed to pinpoint the exact cause and find a cure for auto-brewery syndrome that works for all patients, he recommends a good diet, exercise and occasional probiotics to achieve a healthy microbiome. As if we needed even more inspiration to make some New Years resolutions to eat better.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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