34-year-old Matthew Hogg has a rare condition – auto-brewery syndrome. Every time he eats starchy or sugary foods, his body converts the food into alcohol that is released into his blood stream. This alcohol is so strong that he ends up intoxicated without even touching a single drink.
While this might sound like an alcoholic’s dream, for Matthew, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. He’s been suffering from the rare condition since primary school and his parents have spent their entire life savings of over $80,000 on diagnosing his illness. After seeing several specialists, the condition was finally identified when a test by Dr. Keith Eaton in London revealed high levels of ethanol in his blood and indicated bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. It is this yeast overgrowth that converts his meals into alcohol.
“I have experienced symptoms from birth and during my childhood there were countless times I suffered drunkenness without having consumed an alcoholic beverage,” said Matthew. “Every time I eat bread, potatoes or starchy rice I produce 100 percent proof drinking alcohol that travels around my body through my bloodstream – if I eat a portion of rice I would suffer a hangover equivalent of having glugged three bottles of red wine the night before.”
The hangovers that Matthew suffers are horrible, leaving him bed-bound and exhausted. He started off as a straight-A’s student and made it to Sheffield University for a computer science degree, but he had to drop out of school, unable to concentrate because of his condition. “I would start feeling intoxicated a few hours after having something to eat as my body began digesting it. My overriding memory of this time is feeling frustrated that my brain wasn’t functioning at the level I was used to. I looked at equations in my favorite science classes and I knew I should have no problems understanding and solving them, but they now looked like gibberish.”
“There were times when I also acted out of character. I was generally everyone’s friend at school – a social butterfly. But there were instances when I upset people with uncharacteristic behavior akin to a drunk who stirs up trouble or lets things slip that they wouldn’t have when sober.”
Matthew’s entire life has been affected by the auto-brewery syndrome. He tried working for a while after quitting school but the effort was just too much for him, with all the dizziness, nausea and aggressive behavior. He then lived off disability benefits that were granted to him after he developed irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety.
“I lived on disability and family support from 1999 until 2008, when a website dedicated to information about poorly understood chronic illnesses that I set up – The Environmental Illness Resource – began to produce an adequate income through advertising,” he said. Unfortunately, that lasted only until 2012, and he’s now being supported by his parents and his girlfriend, Mandy.
26-year-old Mandy said that although she loves Matthew, the relationship isn’t always easy sailing. Since he switched to a controlled diet of meat, fish, vegetables and nuts, she needs to make sure there are no tempting snacks or banned foods around. Alcohol is a ‘big no’ in their house.
“I watched other friends in their ‘normal’ relationships and did feel envious of what they had but this made me fight for Matthew and make him realize that his syndrome should not dictate his future happiness,” she said. “He would never control or tell me what to do but I don’t want to sit and eat or have things in the house that would make him feel tempted or negative about the foods he has to stick to.”
Mandy said that she enjoys living an active lifestyle but unfortunately, Matthew isn’t always able to participate and she ends up going out alone. In fact, his condition is so severe that none of the usual treatments have had any effect on him. He’s been on anti-fungal medications, probiotic supplements and selected nutritional supplements, but nothing has worked.
“For many years I’ve eaten something close to a Stone Age diet, which is based on meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Despite this, the underlying cause of the condition has not been successfully treated, so I still suffer chronic symptoms, including fatigue, aches and pains, exercise and stress intolerance and cognitive dysfunction, just not the symptoms of an acute severe hangover.”
“We now have no savings left and even if we did, are at a loss as to how to regain my health – the most precious gift a human being is endowed with,” said Matthew. “It’s a frightening amount of money we’ve spent and the fact that I have not been effectively treated as a result is a real kick in the teeth.”
People’s reactions to Matthew’s auto-brewery syndrome are varied – stubborn disbelief to support from those who understand. His advice for others with the same condition is simple: don’t ignore it. “There are effective treatments out there, especially if the condition is recognized early. I spent the first 10 years doing all of the wrong things as a teenager and making the situation many times worse and more difficult to recover from.”
“I hope my story helps people recognize this condition in themselves or their loved ones, and that they seek help and advice as soon as possible,” he said.