The Strange Way Your Body Can Get Drunk Without Drinking Alcohol

Updated: May 11, 2020

It's a rare, but with gut fermentation or auto brewery syndrome, it's thought that you can be dizzy, get drunk, and even have a hangover—without ever drinking alcohol.

Would you believe that some people can get tipsy without ever taking a sip of alcohol? This strange and rare condition is called auto-brewery syndrome.

Also known by its more clinical name, gut fermentation syndrome, it occurs when there’s an overgrowth of candida, the yeast that most commonly causes yeast infections. Instead of overgrowing in the mouth (known as oral thrush) or vagina (which is more common), the yeast multiplies out of control in your gut.

“When candida metabolizes sugars it produces byproducts and chemical derivatives of alcohol. When those get into your circulatory system, it can give you that feeling of being hungover or drunk,” says Kiran Krishnan, a microbiologist in Florida.

Sometimes, people with the condition assume they’re just sick when they experience symptoms like dizziness, headache, and confusion. But if they had their blood tested it would actually show a slight elevation in blood alcohol content (BAC) depending on what type of alcohol derivative their body produced, says Krishnan.

“It’s just like what happens when you drink, except it’s chronic,” he says. “Drinking causes inflammation in the body and puts stress on the liver, and so does this. It’s basically like these microbes in your body are drinking and having a party and you’re paying the price for it.”

A rare condition

people toasting with drinksMooid Art/shutterstock

Auto-brewery syndrome is very rare. It was first described in the early 1900s. Only a few cases have been cited in medical literature including a 1952 case in Japan, which is believed to be the earliest formal report of the disease. Researchers studied it in the 1930s and 1940s and it was linked to vitamin deficiencies in a 2004 study in the Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine. The condition wasn’t formally given a name until 1990.

According to news reports in 2016, an upstate New York woman had a blood alcohol level about four times the legal limit, despite insisting she hadn’t had a drink in hours. She was telling the truth, and a judge later dismissed the charges after viewing evidence that she unknowingly had auto-brewery syndrome.

Researchers at the University of Washington explored the evidence and reported that in rare individuals, an abnormally high blood alcohol concentration may occur after they’ve eaten carbohydrate-rich foods, according to their 2000 report in the journal Medicine, Science, and the Law. “When the body has sugars or simple carbohydrates in it, as well as these microbes, they’ll metabolize it and produce these byproducts, which cause the systemic effects,” says Krishnan.

Candida overgrowth is what Krishnan calls an “opportunistic grower,” which means if you make your body an attractive incubator, it’ll take advantage of that and leave you feeling hungover all the time, minus the social fun. (These are the signs you might be drinking too much alcohol.) The good news is, it’s not a strong fighter, so there are simple steps you can take to keep it under control. “Limit stress, eat a healthy diet, and take a probiotic,” he recommends.

Next up: 9 sneaky signs you may be drinking too many calories.