When a woman from Hamburg, New York was pulled over by police and blew a blood alcohol level with more than four times the legal limit, police assumed that she had recently come from a bar or other nearby drinking establishment, as is so often the case.
But it had been hours since she’d had a drink, and just before Christmas, a judge dismissed the charges against her after it was proven that the woman suffers from what has been termed “auto-brewery syndrome,” or gut fermentation syndrome. Unusual amounts of gastrointestinal yeast in the stomach convert carbohydrates in food into ethanol. In normal gut fermentation, the large bowel gives energy, but this process takes place in the small bowel.
“I had never heard of auto-brewery syndrome before this case,” the woman’s attorney, Joseph Marusak told CNN. “But I knew something was amiss when the hospital police took the woman to wanted to release her immediately because she wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms.”
“That prompts me to get on the Internet and see if there is any sort of explanation for a weird reading,” Marusak added. “Up pops auto-brewery syndrome and away we go.”
Although the judge dismissed the case due to the proof dug up by the attorney, the ordeal may not be over yet for his client. “I’ve heard the DA’s office says they plan to appeal. I’ll know more by the middle of January,” Marusak said.
Assistant Erie County District Attorney Christopher Belling confirmed the ruling but refused comment to the media.
The Hamburg woman wasn’t the first person to be diagnosed with the syndrome, which is known to medicine. It was first described in 1912 as “germ carbohydrate fermentation,” and was later believed to be linked to vitamin deficiencies and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In Japan, yeast Candida albicans and Candida krusei have contributed to similar cases.
Dean of Nursing at Panola College, Barbara Cordell, has studied it.
“I’m in touch with about 30 people who believe they have this same syndrome, about 10 of them are diagnosed with it. They can function at alcohol levels such as 0.30 and 0.40 when the average person would be comatose or dying. Part of the mystery of this syndrome is how they can have these extremely high levels and still be walking around and talking,” she told CNN.
In 2013, a 61-year-old man was found to be drunk several times, though he claimed to not have had a drink. He was eventually diagnosed with intestinal overabundance of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This is the same species of yeast used to brew beer.
In 2014, the client, whom Marusak didn’t name for privacy reasons, met her husband for an early dinner. She’d had “four drinks between noon and 6 p.m.” said Marusak, “less than one drink an hour. We hired a local pharmacologist who said that a woman of her size and weight having four drinks in that period of time should be between 0.01 and 0.05 blood alcohol levels.” The legal limit in New York State is 0.08.
The crazy thing was, “Her husband drives to meet friends and she is driving home. She gets a flat close to home but doesn’t want to change the tire so keeps on driving. Another driver sees her struggling with the car and calls it in as an accident. So if she hadn’t had that flat tire, she’d not know to this day that she has this condition.”
When police pulled her over, the woman blew 0.40, which is a blood alcohol limit high enough to be life-threatening, so much so that police wanted to transfer her to the hospital as a precaution. But her husband didn’t think she was drunk, given that it had been hours since she had consumed alcohol. He ordered tests to be run, which showed a level of .30. Something wasn’t right, so the couple called Marusak.
“I hired two physician assistants and a person trained in Breathalyzers to watch her and take blood alcohol levels over a 12-hour period and had it run at the same lab used by the prosecution,” said Marusak. “Without any drinks, her blood level was double the legal limit at 9:15 a.m., triple the limit at 6 p.m. and more than four times the legal limit at 8:30 p.m., which correlates with the same time of day that the police pulled her over.”
The woman exhibited no signs of drunkenness until she reached the .30 level. But even then, the symptoms were mild, and not to the dangerous levels of intoxication that most people would feel at that level.
“That’s when she started to feel a bit wobbly on her feet,” Marusak said.
Now, over a year later, the client is taking anti-fungal medications and a low-carb, sugar-free, yeast-free diet. Other patients have had a hard time finding relief from the condition on similar diets, however.
Gut fermentation syndrome, is being raised more and more often in DUI cases.
“At first glance, it seems like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor, told the Associated Press. “But it’s not that easy. Courts tend to be skeptical of such claims. You have to be able to document the syndrome through recognized testing.”
The auto-brewery defense has been used in court in the past. Several years ago in Sweden, for instance, forensic toxicologist Wayne Jones was asked to give evidence in a DUI case, where the court ruled in favor of the defendant who claimed to have the syndrome. However, the prosecution appealed, and the defendant was eventually found guilty.
However, as the condition becomes more widely known, we can expect to see this defense used more and more–although only cold, hard facts will reveal the truth about whether you’re making your own beer, or your bartender is just serving it to you.