When police stopped her car near Buffalo, New York, the woman driving swore she hadn't had more than three drinks in the past six hours. But her blood alcohol content (BAC) seemed to tell a different story — it was four time the state's legal limit.
This month, however, the drunk driving charges against her were dismissed. As the Associated Press reported, the unnamed woman's lawyer said that she had a rare physiological condition called auto-brewery syndrome, which causes her gut to produce intoxicating amounts of alcohol while digesting certain foods.
The woman is now allowed to drive freely.
Not much is known about the rare condition, which is also called gut fermentation syndrome or drunkenness disease. The first documented cases date back to the 1970s in Japan, according to a 2013 paper by Barbara Cordell in the International Journal of Clinical Medicine. People with the disease have an overgrowth of a certain type of yeast in their gut, causing their body to ferment carbohydrates into alcohol. In other words, eating too much pizza could get them wasted.
Uncontrollable alcohol production might sound like a cheap alternative to buying drinks, but it comes with the same side effects. Patients with the condition report dizziness, irritable bowel syndrome, and hangovers — and it has even been linked to sudden infant death syndrome.
Only a few cases of the disease have been reported in recent decades, according to Cordell's research. She describes a 13-year-old girl who was sent to rehab and kept showing symptoms of being drunk despite not having any access to liquor. She was later diagnosed with gut fermentation syndrome and prescribed the anti-yeast drug fluconazole, which cleared up her symptoms.
Another case involved a man who stumbled into a Texas emergency room with a blood alcohol content of 0.37 percent, insisting that he had not had a sip of alcohol. Doctors initially decided that he was a closet alcoholic and sent him home. But after he repeatedly found himself randomly drunk, he was diagnosed with the disease and put on a low-carb diet.
Even though several of these cases have been identified and traced back to an overgrowth of yeast in the gut, some medical and legal experts are still skeptical of the condition being used to get out of drunk driving charges.
"Researchers have shown unequivocally that Saccharomyces [the type of yeast associated with alcohol production] can grow in the intestinal tract," Duke University microbiologist Dr. Joseph Heitman told NPR. "But it's still unclear whether it's associated with any disease."
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