It’s rare that a breathalyzer reading of roughly 0.33 would result in a DUI acquittal. In the case of a woman from Hamburg, New York, her freedom is due to her body evidently producing its own alcohol—a rare but known disorder called “auto-brewery syndrome” or “gut fermentation syndrome”.
When the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, was found to have such a high blood-alcohol level, she was immediately brought to the hospital. This is standard procedure since levels between 0.3 and 0.4 usually result in a coma and possibly death. The hospital, however, wanted to release her quickly since she wasn’t showing symptoms. Some curiosity on part of her lawyer lead to the possibility of auto-brewery syndrome and the woman was then subjected to careful monitoring. Over a twelve hour period without drinks, her blood alcohol level went from roughly 0.16 to 0.35.
The body’s intestinal tract is home to various forms of microorganisms and among those with auto-brewery syndrome, this assortment also includes what are known as “brewer’s yeasts”—organisms that break down carbohydrates into alcohol. Much like alcoholics, auto-brewers can develop tolerances to the effects of alcohol. This is why auto-brewers can go for so long without their condition being noticed. Following a meal with a high carbohydrate or sugar content, it is possible for auto-brewers to experience unexpected hangover symptoms as well.
Although rare, the condition has been around since about 1912 and there have been around a dozen cases noted in Japan around the 1970’s. The most recent case prior to the New York woman was documented in 2013 in Texas. A man reported to the emergency room with unexplained dizziness and was found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.37—again within the “coma and/or death” range. Much like the New York woman, he was tested by being placed in an alcohol-free environment and fed carbohydrates over twelve hours. His blood alcohol level rose under these conditions, again like the New York case. Later tests showed his intestines were home to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same microbe used in Oregon’s brewing industry.
No one quite knows what causes the syndrome to occur. Genetic factors or environmental exposure are the leading theories but no concrete findings exist. From a legal standpoint, auto-brewery syndrome is not an immediate “get out of DUI-free” card. Now that she has been diagnosed, the New York woman will be expected to take steps—such as a low-carb diet and antimicrobial medications—to keep her condition in check.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Cordell, B., et al., “A Case Study of Gut Fermentation Syndrome (Auto-Brewery) with Saccharomyces Cerevisiae as the Causative Organism,” International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2013; doi:10.4236/ijcm.2013.47054.
LaMotte, S., “Woman Charged with DUI Has ‘auto-brewery Syndrome,'” CNN web site, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/31/health/auto-brewery-syndrome-dui-womans-body-brews-own-alcohol/index.html, last accessed January 4, 2016.
Underhill, K., “DWI Charge Dismissed Because Driver Was a Gut-Brewer,” Lowering the Bar web site, December 31, 2015; http://loweringthebar.net/2015/12/dui-dismissed-gut-brewing.html.