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A Carthage, Texas man recently had to be treated in the hospital when his blood alcohol levels reached 0.37%, but he had not been drinking.

The medical journals recently reported the case of a East Texas man who had to be hospitalized when his bloodstream alcohol levels reached 0.37%, three to seven times the legal limit for driving, even though he had not been drinking. 

The sixty-one year-old man had a history of "getting drunk out of the blue," Panola College's Dean of Nursing Barbara Cordell told news media, sitting in church, after eating breakfast, claiming he had nothing at all to drink. His wife even bought a Breathalyzer for use at home, and his doctors suspected he was an alcoholic who very cleverly hid his booze.

Cordell and Texas Tech University Dr. Justin McCarthy, however, suspected the man might just be telling the truth. McCarthy had the man admitted to hospital for 24 hours of observation.

After the man's room was carefully checked for hidden alcohol, he was put in isolation, and fed high-carbohydrate foods. During those 24 hours, the man's blood alcohol levels rose to 0.12%, which is past the level for legal intoxication in any jurisdiction.

The problem, it turned out, was a condition that has come to be known as auto-brewery syndrome, an infection with massive amounts of Saccharomycetes cervisiae, which is known as brewer's yeast. The yeast were making alcohol inside the man's gut.

A Different Kind of Yeast Infection

The microorganism that is used to brew beer is also used to make bread and wine.

Small amounts of it may survive baking bread, and larger amounts of the live yeast are found in alcoholic beverages.

The Texas man in the study was a home brewing enthusiast who apparently had swallowed a large amount of the yeast that survived digestion and took up residence in his colon. There actually have been a fewer other cases in other countries. But doctors still find it hard to believe that someone can get drunk from alcohol they didn't even drink.

Other Kinds of Yeast Can Also Induce Auto-Brewery Syndrome

In a number of cases in Japan in the 1970's, auto-brewery syndrome developed after people were put on antibiotics.

The antibiotics killed the "friendly," probiotic Lactobacillus bacteria in their intestines, and allowed pathogenic Candida albicans bacteria to flourish.

Candida is the microorganism that is most often associated with itchy urinary tract infections and the throat infection known as thrush. It can also transform sugar into alcohol.

In a few other cases, auto-brewery syndrome has occurred in children who suffer a condition called short-bowel syndrome, and in one case the condition occurred after eating large quantities of chocolate.

Just don't count on auto-brewery syndrome as a defense if you are pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving.

  • Cordell B, McCarthy J. A Case Study of Gut Fermentation Syndrome (Auto-Brewery) with Saccharomyces cerevisiae as the Causative Organism. IJCM. 4(7). July 2013.
  • Logan BK, Jones AW. Endogenous ethanol 'auto-brewery syndrome' as a drunk-driving defence challenge. Med Sci Law. 2000 Jul
  • 40(3):206-15.
  • Photo courtesy of gaelx on Flickr:

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