Auto-brewery syndrome: Getting drunk without drinking

In 2014, a woman in New Jersey was arrested for driving under the influence. Her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.40 percent. But the woman had not ingested all that alcohol. Her body had fermented it as a result of a peculiar biological condition.

Condition converts food into alcohol

Auto-brewery syndrome, or gut-fermentation syndrome, is a rare condition. It was first described in 1912 as germ carbohydrate fermentation. A person’s body produces abnormal amounts of gastrointestinal yeast. The yeast goes to work on food in the small intestine, converting common carbohydrates into ethanol. And before a person can count backwards from 10 or stand on one leg or apply finger to nose, the small intestine has fermented a batch of homegrown hooch.

Fear the walking dead

A person with a BAC of 0.30 percent or higher risks death. For this reason, New Jersey police took the woman to the hospital. The woman had been drinking earlier in the day with her husband. She consumed four drinks over the course of six hours. It was physically impossible for her to have a BAC of 0.40 percent. Her husband had tests run to determine what was going on. The blood tests revealed his wife still had a BAC of over 0.30 percent several hours after her last drink. Further tests revealed she had the rare disease.

Based on the medical findings, the judge in her case dismissed the DUI charge.

Spontaneous inebriation

A 61-year-old Texas man went to the emergency room because he felt dizzy. A blood test revealed the man’s BAC was 0.37 percent without having touched of drop of booze all day. “He would get drunk out of the blue,” according to Barbara Cordell, dean of nursing at Panola College.

Some local physicians attributed this immaculate intoxication to closet drinking, but Cordell and a Lubbock gastroenterologist believed there was more to the man’s story than a secret cache of liquor. After verifying the man had no booze on his person or hidden in his belongings, Cordell and the Lubbock doctor isolated the man in a hospital room and observed him for a day. The man was given foods rich in carbohydrates. Doctors periodically checked his blood throughout the day. At one point, the man’s BAC was 0.12 percent.

Drunk is drunk

The judge dismissed the charges in the New Jersey case, but the district attorney is considering refiling. According to the woman’s attorney, his client began feeling the effects of her internal still when her BAC reached between 0.30 and 0.40 percent. “That’s when she started to feel a bit wobbly on her feet,” he said. He compared his client’s metabolism to that of an alcoholic. Each has a remarkably high tolerance for alcohol. Even with a BAC of 0.02 percent, a driver can be impaired; at 0.06 percent, he or she is consistently impaired.

In 1990, a lawyer for one of the Northwest Airline pilots accused of flying drunk did not deny his client’s guilt. But, he argued, his client was an alcoholic and spent 35 years building up a tolerance to alcohol. His client was still convicted. Drunk driving laws do not make exceptions for medical conditions, and the brain will eventually feel the effects of too much BAC.

Sovereign Court Services intercedes with the court on behalf of our patients. We are not legal counsel. Instead, we are legal advocates, and what we advocate is treatment, not incarceration. If you are facing criminal charges stemming from a mental health issue or substance abuse disorder, call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

February 15, 2016

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