A woman who lives in upstate New York recently escaped drunk driving charges by convincing a judge that she hadn’t been hitting the breweries—her body had literally become one, thanks to a rare disorder dubbed auto-brewery syndrome, in which an excess of intestinal yeast causes ingested food and drinks to ferment into alcohol.
According to The Buffalo News, the defendant, a 35-year-old schoolteacher, was pulled over in Erie County last year after tipsters reported she was driving erratically. While she said that she had consumed three drinks earlier that day, her Breathalyzer results told a different story: Her blood alcohol content (BAC) was a staggering .33 percent—more than four times the state's legal limit of .08.
Facing misdemeanor charges of DWI and aggravated DWI, the woman sought the opinions of medical experts. They monitored the defendant’s BAC when she wasn’t drinking, and found that it consistently climbed above the legal limit. A defense attorney presented these findings to a judge, who became convinced that the unusual medical condition, also known as gut fermentation syndrome, was the culprit behind the woman's inebriated driving. People with the syndrome have unusually high levels of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, more commonly known as brewer's yeast.
"She can register a blood alcohol content that would have you or I falling down drunk, but she can function,” the defendant’s attorney, Joseph Marusak, told The Buffalo News. (The Erie County District Attorney’s office is reportedly planning to appeal the judge’s ruling.)
Think that auto-brewery syndrome sounds less like a legitimate medical condition and more like a fake disease invented by a frat boy looking to get out of finals? Rest assured: Doctors say it’s real but rarely reported. According to The Buffalo News, approximately 50 to 100 people have been diagnosed with the disorder, although as many as 95 percent of sufferers might not even know they have it. However, it's still made headlines in recent years: In 2013, NPR reported that a dizzy 61-year-old man who entered a Texas emergency room was diagnosed with auto-brewery syndrome, and in 2014, Vice profiled a man with the disorder who consistently felt tipsy or hungover.
Physicians think high-carbohydrate diets might make symptoms worse, and the BBC writes that auto-brewery syndrome might be linked to the long-term use of antibiotics. (It's unclear whether this is a reason why Nick Hess, whose struggle with the condition is related in the article, gets drunk on french fries.) Some patients have used low-carb, low-sugar diets and anti-fungal drugs to treat their symptoms. However, when an individual's auto-brewery syndrome flares up, they probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel—or, for that matter, engaging in any activities that might be made potentially dangerous when alcohol is in the mix.