Imagine if your body produced its own alcohol – pretty great, right? You'd always have a buzz on, meaning you'd be one up on most people in the confidence stakes, and you'd never have to dip your hands into your pockets at the bar or make the journey to the off-licence when you wanted to get shit-faced. On the other hand, you'd presumably end up drunk in inappropriate situations and be hungover ALL THE TIME, despite the fact that you never even touched a bottle.
Well, "auto-brewery syndrome" – where excesses of yeast trapped in the small intestine create pure alcohol that gets absorbed directly into the bloodstream – does exist. Sadly, the symptoms seem to resemble that second scenario far more than the first.
Matthew Hogg has been a sufferer of the syndrome for almost 20 years. Every time he eats sugar or carbohydrates, his body converts them into ethanol and he ends up either tipsy or hungover. I gave him a call to chat about what it's like being a walking human brewery.
VICE: Hi Matthew. When did you first realise that your gut creates its own alcohol?
Matthew Hogg: I suffered from digestive upsets throughout my childhood. I was initially diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, but in my mid-to-late teens I experienced a severe worsening of symptoms, like bloating and gas after meals – so much so that I could feel the bubbling of fermentation occurring in my lower abdomen. More worryingly, I developed new, quite frightening symptoms. I would feel intoxicated, as well as a long list of whole-body symptoms, including chronic fatigue, muscular aches and pains, chronic headaches, mental impairment, mood disturbances and so on.
Did you feel hungover afterwards?
Yeah, by my late teens I was experiencing severe alcoholic hangovers that would usually be at their worst the morning after eating a high carbohydrate meal. I'd get pounding headaches, severe nausea, occasional vomiting, dehydration, dry mouth, cold sweats and shaky hands. It was as if I'd been out the previous night and drunk the bar dry, but I hadn't consumed any alcohol.
Jesus, that sounds terrible. So when were you actually diagnosed with auto-brewery syndrome?
Eventually I was referred to a specialist in London, the late Dr Keith Eaton. His test confirmed that my gut was producing large amounts of ethanol from yeast, as well as significant amounts of other alcohols associated with the metabolism of various bacteria. Dr Eaton diagnosed me with auto-brewery syndrome, and this diagnosis has been confirmed by other medical doctors specialising in unusual and unrecognised chronic illnesses.
What kind of impact has it had on your life?
It's had a huge and devastating impact on my life. Up until the age of 16, I was a straight-A student and found academic work enjoyable and rewarding. I was also a keen athlete and sportsman, and had a great social life. As the auto-brewery syndrome began to assert itself, all of this changed. I found myself struggling badly at school when, in my mind, I knew I shouldn’t be having any problem. 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.
So what did you do next?
I managed to scrape into Sheffield University at 18 to study for a computer science degree. But in the end, it didn’t matter, as living away from home, studying and socialising at the same time was just too much for my poisoned body and mind. I lasted less than two semesters. I got home and looked for jobs, but found them to be too much for me, so conceded that I would have to apply for disability benefits. I wouldn't have been granted them using auto-brewery syndrome as a diagnosis, due to lack of governmental and medical recognition. But, by this time, I'd also amassed IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety as diagnoses, so my claim was granted.
When was that?
I lived on disability and family support from 1999 until 2008, when a website dedicated to information about poorly understood chronic illnesses that I set up – The Environmental Illness Resource – began to produce an adequate income through advertising and I registered as self-employed. That period of self-sufficiency only lasted until 2012, however, and I'm now supported by my parents and my wonderful girlfriend Mandy, who I now live with. I continue to run The Environmental Illness Resource as best I can because the information that it provides helps a great many people in a similar situation to myself.
What would you be doing if you weren't afflicted with auto-brewery syndrome?
I had ambitions to be an academic, professional athlete, scientist, engineer or an airline pilot. As it stands, I'm approaching 35 years old and spend my days at home, with every day being a struggle – though I do my best to stay positive and maintain friendships, and believe that I will one day regain my health. All I want is a chance to make a living, have a family and enjoy socialising and hobbies.
How often do you feel drunk or hungover? Is it an everyday thing?
If I were to eat a normal diet containing grains, fruits and processed foods with added sugar, I would experience the symptoms I have described every day, but I've learned to adapt my diet to minimise the fermentation in my gut. For many years I’ve eaten something close to a Stone Age diet, which is based on meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Despite this, the underlying cause of the condition has not been successfully treated, so I still suffer chronic symptoms, including fatigue, aches and pains, exercise and stress intolerance and cognitive dysfunction, just not the symptoms of an acute severe hangover.
I imagine this could be the last thing you'd want to do, but have you ever eaten a load of sugary foods to get drunk for recreational reasons?
Honestly, there are times in social situations – or when nothing else is available, if I’m away from home – that I've either been forced to or chosen to eat sugary and starchy foods. But, as a rule, I prefer to stick to the low-carb diet because the negative consequences outweigh the momentary pleasure. It's always been the case that I feel more hungover than drunk as a result of auto-brewery syndrome, so although people may assume this condition is a cheap way to get drunk for recreational purposes, that’s unfortunately not the reality.
But you can get drunk by eating sugar and carbs, right?
Yes. There were many times, throughout my later high school years in particular, when I felt moments of drunkenness without having consumed any alcohol. I'd describe them as periods rather than moments, actually, as they lasted for a few hours at a time. These periods of intoxication always followed a meal and, after a few hours – which is a typical time period for digestion and absorption – the effects would wear off and I would feel normal consciousness return.
My overriding memory of this time is feeling frustrated that my brain wasn't functioning at the level I was used to. I looked at equations in my favourite science classes and knew I should have no problem understanding and solving them, but they now looked like gibberish. There were times when I also acted out of character. I was generally everyone’s friend at school – a social butterfly. But there were instances when I upset people with uncharacteristic behaviour akin to a drunk who stirs up trouble or lets things slip that they wouldn't have when sober.
That doesn't sound like fun. How do people typically react when you tell them that your body produces its own alcohol?
Reactions vary widely, from stubborn disbelief to support from those who can imagine what it must be like to have the condition. I'm lucky that I'm still in touch with many of my closest friends from my high school days, and they're as understanding as they can be without experiencing the condition themselves.
Does the fact that so few people have heard of your condition make it harder to deal with?
Absolutely. And I’m constantly reading messages from visitors to my website who suffer from the condition, saying that their doctor, boss, co-workers – and even friends, family and partners – just don’t understand. People just think we're making this condition up a lot of the time.
What's your advice to other people who suffer from auto-brewery syndrome?
I would like to let your readers who think they might have auto-brewery syndrome know that there are effective treatments out there, especially if the condition is recognised early. It was completely unknown when I became ill, and I spent the first ten years doing all of the wrong things as a teenager and making the situation many times worse and more difficult to recover from. I hope my story helps people recognise this condition in themselves or their loved ones, and that they seek help and advice as soon as possible.
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