A person can get drunk without consuming a single drop of alcohol, according to several experts. Although it sounds like a form of sorcery, this condition is actually caused by a biological attribute - one that has caught the interest of the medical community.
Known as the auto-brewery syndrome, this medical condition was first described in 1912 as "germ carbohydrate fermentation," denoting a literal beer gut.
People with this condition have digestive systems that exist as tiny, internal breweries. They can also survive at blood alcohol concentration levels (BAC) that would put a normal person into a comatose. With BAC four times higher than the legal limit, people with auto-brewery syndrome simply feel tipsy.
Lethal Levels of Blood Alcohol Concentration
Such is the case of a 35-year-old woman from New York who faced a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) charge in October 2014 when another driver called authorities after seeing her stagger all over the road on a 2010 Toyota Corolla .
The woman's representative Atty. Joseph J. Marusak recalled the incident. That day in October, the woman met her husband at a restaurant for a date, where she consumed four drinks between 12 noon and six in the evening.
If you do the math, that's less than a drink per hour. Marusak said they hired a local pharmacologist who said that with four drinks, the 120-pound woman in that particular period should be having 0.01 to 0.05 BAC, a number lower than the legal limit of 0.08 BAC in the state of New York.
After the date, the woman's husband drove on to meet friends. The woman drove home alone. On the way, her tire got flat, but she didn't want to stop so she kept driving. Another driver noticed her struggling with her car and called 911.
"If she hadn't had that flat tire, she'd not know to this day that she has this condition," said Marusak.
When the authorities came, the woman blew a BAC of 0.40, a level that is normally considered as lethal. She was then taken to the hospital.
Doctors said the woman didn't show any symptoms of drunkenness and thus approved her release. Her husband, however, asked for further tests to be made. Hours after the woman's last drink, her BAC was 0.30.
Marusak then did his own research. He hired two physician assistants and a Breathalyzers specialist to watch the woman, take her BAC over a 12-hour period and had it evaluated by the same lab used by the prosecution.
The team that Marusak hired found that when the woman was sober, her BAC was double the legal limit at 9:15 AM. At 6 PM, it was triple, and at 8:30 PM, it was four times higher. This was around the same time when the police pulled the woman over for DWI.
Marusak said the woman did not exhibit any signs of high BAC until it reached 0.30 or 0.40, in which she would only feel dizzy.
Dr. Anup Kanodia from Ohio, a specialist who has treated people with auto-brewery syndrome, said only about 50 to 100 people have ever been diagnosed with the medical condition.
"They are legally drunk, but they are walking around, they are functioning. There are people who get drunk without drinking any alcohol at all," said Kanodia.
Dismissed by the Judge, But It Does Not End There
Hamburg town Judge Walter Rooth has just dismissed the DWI charge. The woman had spent about $7,000 working with a specialist in order to figure out exactly how and why her body meets the sky-high BAC levels without any alcohol consumption.
Despite the ruling, however, the District Attorney's office stands by the charge.
"I've heard the DA's office says they plan to appeal. I'll know more by the middle of January," said Marusak.
The police officers who arrested the woman also do not regret their decision.
"She was highly intoxicated, as shown by the Breathalyzer. Our officers did the right thing in getting her off the road," said Hamburg Police Chief Gregory G. Wickett.
Other People With Auto-Brewery Syndrome
Like the woman from New York, two more people who were diagnosed with ABS had had strange stories.
35-year-old Nick Hess from Ohio would get drunk from eating chips. Then, the rush would be gone and he would get a stomachache and a headache, as if he'd been drinking.
"Every day for a year I would wake up and vomit. Sometimes it would come on over the course of a few days, sometimes it was just like 'bam! I'm drunk'," said Hess. He was then diagnosed with ABS and was featured in early 2015 in media reports.
In September 2013, a 61-year-old man in Texas who stumbled upon the emergency room was found to have a whopping 0.37 BAC. The man did not drink any alcohol before going to the E.R.
"He would get drunk out of the blue - on a Sunday morning after being at church, or really, just anytime. His wife was so dismayed about it that she even bought a Breathalyzer," said Barbara Cordell of Panola College, who is investigating cases of ABS.
How a Digestive System under the Auto-Brewery Syndrome Works
Other medical specialists were also skeptical about the condition so Cordell teamed up with gastroenterologist Dr. Justin McCarthy to look further into the cases.
She and her team searched the man's belongings and isolated him in a hospital room for 24 hours. He ate foods rich in carbohydrates, and his BAC was regularly checked. At one instance, it rose to 0.12 percent.
Cordell and McCarthy found the culprit: an overabundance of yeast in the man's belly, which had become an internal brewery.
The man had an infection with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the researchers said. Whenever he drank or ate anything with starch, the yeast fermented the sugars and turned them into ethanol which would in turn get him drunk. This and all other findings of Cordell's team were featured in the International Journal of Clinical Medicine.
Dr. Joseph Heitman of Duke University said that the case of the 61-year-old man was interesting, but there should still be caution. "The problem with a case report is that it's just one person. It's not a controlled clinical study," said Heitman.
Now that new ABS cases have been identified, however, are they enough to count as medical evidence? We have yet to see.
Photo : West Midlands Police | Flickr