What is Auto-Brewery Syndrome?

Getting Drunk Without Drinking

A model appears intoxicated
Auto-brewery syndrome can cause intoxication without drinking. Andy Ryan/Getty Images

Definition of Auto-Brewery Syndrome

Auto-brewery syndrome is a rare condition, first discovered in the 1940s, in which a person experiences alcohol intoxication by creating alcohol in their own body. These individuals do not drink alcohol, yet their body produces alcohol through “abnormal gut fermentation,” which basically means that their body makes alcohol out of regular food and drinks containing carbohydrates, by fermenting it in the intestine with yeast or bacteria that live in that part of the body.

The condition is also sometimes called “endogenous ethanol fermentation.”

Why Do Some People Develop Auto-Brewery Syndrome?

Fermentation in the gut is a normal part of the digestive process, and happens though the breakdown of food by normal bacteria in the colon. However, in people with auto-brewery syndrome, fermentation happens in the small intestine, further up the digestive tract. Certain fungi have been found to be responsible for producing alcohol, such as Candida glabrata and Sacchromyces cerevisiaw. Normally, the liver can detoxify the tiny amounts of alcohol which are by-products of yeast fermentation, but in people with abnormal gut fermentation, too much alcohol is produced, and causes the person to become intoxicated.  

Symptoms of Auto-Brewery Syndrome

There are many symptoms resulting from the condition, and perhaps surprisingly to those who drink alcohol recreationally, they are not pleasant.

They include:

  • Problems with concentration, memory, and thought processes
  • Fatigue – feeling very tired
  • Aches and pains
  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating, gas
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Discharge from the nose, a productive cough, and sinusitis
  • Sugar cravings

Who Gets Auto-Brewery Syndrome?

Although the condition is very rare, cases have been reported in men, women and children.

There have been reports in several different countries, including Africa, Japan, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Problems Associated with Auto-Brewery Syndrome

There are several types of problems that can occur as a result of the condition. As well as the unpleasant symptoms of the disease, people may experience social and relationship problems as a result. Friends, family, and co-workers may believe the person is a heavy drinker, and as denial is common among people who drink too much, denying that they have been drinking may not help. A 13 year old girl with the condition was thought to be showing adolescent behavior disorder, including both her symptoms of intoxication and her denial of drinking any alcohol, but after being restricted from access to alcohol in a rehab center, showed the same signs and symptoms of drunkenness.

Some people have even got in trouble for drunk driving, as the alcohol may show up on a breathalyzer test.

There are also physical problems that can develop, in particular, the small intestine may become more permeable, causing deficiencies in B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.

These vitamins and minerals are important in maintaining good health, and not having enough is a type of malnutrition.

Treatment for Auto-Brewery Syndrome

The main treatments for the condition are changes to diet to reduce intake of simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, yeast products, and moldy foods, and medications to reduce the fungi and bacteria thought to be responsible in the gut. Vitamin and mineral supplements may also be needed to address the deficiencies in these nutrients.

Sources

Cordell, B. & McCarthy, J. A case of gut fermentation syndrome (auto-brewery) with Saccharomyces cerevisiae as the causative organism. International Journal of Clinical Medicine 4, 309-312. 2013.

Dahshan, A., & Donovan, K. Auto-brewery syndrome in a child with short gut syndrome: Case report and review of the literature. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition 33: 214-215. 2001.

Eaton, K., McLaren Howard, J., Hunnisett, A., & Harris, M. Abnormal gut fermentation: Laboratory studies reveal deficiency of B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine 14:2, 115-120. 2004.

Joneja, J., Ayre, E., & Paterson, K. Abnormal gut fermentation: The “auto-brewery” syndrome. Journal of the Canadian Dietetic Association 58: 2, 97-100. 1997.

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