The man’s troubles began in 2004, when, having moved from China to attend college in Australia, he got really drunk. That would hardly have been a noteworthy event, except that the man hadn’t consumed any alcohol—only fruit juice.
The bizarre incident soon turned into a pattern. About once a month, and out of the blue, he’d become severely inebriated without drinking any alcohol. Over time, the episodes became more severe and more frequent. He lost jobs because people suspected him of being a closet drinker. He was frequently hospitalized. In 2011, he returned to China and his mother cared for him while monitoring him with a Breathalyzer. His blood-alcohol levels, she found, would erratically and inexplicably soar to 10 times the legal limit for driving.
In June 2014, at the age of 27, he was admitted to the intensive-care unit of Chinese PLA General Hospital, in Beijing. At one point, so much alcohol was on his breath that he couldn’t sleep through the night. Another time, he threw up and blacked out after chugging some soda water. A CT scan showed that his liver was damaged, inflamed, and riddled with fatty deposits.
The man was diagnosed with a rare condition aptly known as auto-brewery syndrome, in which microbes in a person’s gut ferment carbohydrates into excessive amounts of alcohol. The earliest cases were documented in Japan in the 1950s, and a few dozen more have been reported since, in people all over the world, and even in children as young as 3. The microbial culprits are usually yeasts—the same fungi used to brew beer and wine—and the condition can often be treated with antifungal drugs.