Man Gets Drunk Without Drinking From Rare Condition That Makes Alcohol in His Stomach

A rare condition called auto-brewery syndrome causes some people to literally brew their own alcohol inside their bodies. Ray Lewis, a former truck driver for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, produces so much he has to test his blood-alcohol content 10 times a day.

Also known as gut fermentation syndrome, auto-brewery syndrome causes a human body to ferment its own alcohol from food entering the stomach. It's a form of yeast infection—specifically, too much brewer’s yeast within the gut. So if someone with the condition eats starchy foods, the excess yeast ferments it into alcohol.

"Researchers have shown unequivocally that Saccharomyces can grow in the intestinal tract," Joseph Heitman, a microbiologist at Duke University, told NPR. "But it's still unclear whether it's associated with any disease.”

Auto-brewery syndrome is a devastating condition, made more painful by the fact that, besides being difficult to diagnose, it also lends itself to being dismissed or joked about by the public. In 2014, Lewis got behind the wheel after lunch and—unaware that he was about to be driving drunk—overturned the truck and spilled its cargo of 11,000 salmon. He was seriously injured and lost his job. He wasn’t diagnosed until nearly a year later. Now he’s crowd-funding his medical care, and is still trying to get his DUI conviction overturned.

"Most people have laughed at us when we say the words 'auto-brewery.' They only stop making jokes when they realize it is not a joke and that we are both suffering,” Lewis, now 48, recently told the New Zealand Herald. "It has the same physiological effects on the body as lifelong binge drinking. The body's organs don't know or care where the booze originates.”

The early warning signs of auto-brewery syndrome are nausea, sweating, and repeating the same conversations. Lewis experienced these for a year before the accident that cost him his job. When his symptoms first began, Lewis’s wife Sierra suspected him of being secretly alcoholic, which given the circumstances is pretty understandable; she now monitors a GPS tracker he wears in case he’s suddenly incapacitated.

"The triggers can be infuriatingly inconsistent, but I can't eat sugary snacks or carb-rich foods I used to enjoy,” Lewis told the Herald. "Obviously drinking is out too, but I wouldn't want to do that. Getting drunk without knowing when or why is just horrible."

872102666 A brewer works in an ephemeral brewery set by French Brewers Association, "Brasseurs de France," in a winery of the Bercy district of Paris on November 9. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Lewis suffers the same physical stressors as an actual alcoholic. Though there’s no known way of preventing flare-ups entirely, Lewis now adheres to a strict carb-free diet.

"I used to be an avid outdoorsman. I learned to fish before I could walk, and am always most content in the middle of nowhere. But it's almost impossible to lead that life now,” Lewis, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, told the Herald. "I'm getting better at noticing when flare-ups are starting, but I can go upstairs for five minutes and before I have started to come back down I'm unable to walk or talk…[s]pikes leave me unsteady and very confused, to the point where I lose track of time and forget to eat or drink.”