Sober Man Discovers Gut Bacteria Is Behind His Drunken Symptoms

By Kelly Burch 10/04/19

Doctors believe the bacteria was converting the man's food into alcohol, raising his blood-alcohol level and damaging his liver. 

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sober man dealing with drunkenness
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When a man in China went to the hospital reporting that he kept getting drunk without touching a drop of alcohol, he unknowingly gave doctors and researchers a clue that could help treat nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that affects as many as 1 billion people. 

Jing Yuan is a microbiologist at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing. That’s where Yuan first met the patient, according to Science magazine. The man went to the hospital because he kept having episodes where he would feel drunk, even though he hadn’t had any alcohol. His mother breathalyzed him, and his blood alcohol level was high, despite not drinking. 

In the hospital, the doctors discovered that if the man ate a meal that was high in sugar, his blood alcohol level rose shockingly. In fact, it was as high as it would be if he had taken 15 shots of 80-proof alcohol, Yuan said. 

His Body Converted Food Into Alcohol

Doctors then discovered that the man had levels of the bacteria klebsiella pneumoniae that were 900 times higher than normal. That bacteria, they believe, was converting his food into alcohol, raising his blood-alcohol level and damaging his liver. 

Doctors then studied patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and found that they were significantly more likely to have high levels of the klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria. In fact, 60% of people with the liver disease had the bacteria, compared to just 6% of healthy people. 

Studying Animals

Researchers followed up with an animal study. They observed mice that had been fed one of three diets: one normal, one containing alcohol, and one containing HiAlc K. pneumoniae bacteria. Mice that received alcohol or the bacteria developed liver disease, while those with normal diets did not. This further solidified the connection between the bacteria and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, said Dr. Anna Mae Diehl, who specializes in treating the disease. 

“The studies are carefully done, and the results are quite convincing,” she said. 

Potentially, doctors could use viruses to target the K. pneumoniae bacteria to help treat nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This treatment regimen worked in the mice that were being studied. 

“I have to admit this is pretty impressive,” said David Haslam of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “This raises the possibility that phage might be used to treat [severe nonalcoholic fatty liver disease].”

Identifying the bacteria could also help predict which patients will develop the most severe form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

“That’s very intriguing and exciting if confirmed in larger human trials,” Haslam said.  

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.