This Unhealthy Gut Bacteria Can Make You Drunk, Scientists Find

mbg Health Contributor By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”
This Unhealthy Gut Bacteria Can Make You Drunk, Scientists Find

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

The only way to get drunk is to drink alcohol. Right? According to new research, not so much. Under rare circumstances, a person's own gut bacteria can produce alcohol—at higher levels than you ever imagined possible.

As you might expect, this phenomenon puzzled doctors for years, and science—including a new study published in Cell Press—has only recently begun to explain how and why this happens.

How your gut bacteria can get you drunk.

The story starts with a 27-year-old man in China, who—after eating a high-carb diet full of sugar—saw doctor after doctor looking for answers to his mysterious illness. His symptoms? Bouts of unexplained intoxication, which had been occurring for 10 years and were increasing in severity.

Initially doctors assumed he was an alcoholic who was simply hiding his intake, but after thorough observation and testing, it was discovered that after the man ate a meal high in sugar, his blood alcohol level rose to 400 milligrams per deciliter. And that's no light buzz, either. As Jing Yuan, lead author on the study and microbiologist at Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing explained, "That's equivalent to 15 shots of 40% [80-proof] whisky."

Eventually, doctors found an explanation: The man had several strains of the bacteria Klebsiella pneumonia in his gut. Interestingly, Klebsiella pneumonia can produce up to six times more alcohol than the typical gut bacteria found in a healthy person's GI tract.

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The connection between gut bacteria and fatty liver disease.

As you might expect, the health consequences of this can be pretty serious. "When the body is overloaded and can't break down the alcohol produced by these bacteria, you can develop fatty liver disease even if you don't drink," explained Yuan. Affecting about one in three Americans, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an extremely common condition with no known cause, so the researchers jumped at the opportunity to potentially identify an explanation.

Next, the team took microbiome samples from 91 people (48 with NAFLD and 43 without ) and found that 60% of the participants with NAFLD had the major alcohol-producing strains of Klebsiella pneumonia in their guts compared to only 6% of the healthy participants. As Yuan explained, "NAFLD is a heterogenous disease and may have many causes... Our study shows K. pneumonia is very likely to be one of them." The good news is that the initial patient recovered after a round of antibiotics and implementing specific dietary changes, and if caught early, NAFLD is reversible.

So what causes increased levels of Klebsiella pneumonia in the first place? The study's authors suspect genetics and lifestyle could both play a role, and they plan to make answering that question the topic of their future research. Researchers hope the knowledge gained from this research will help with early detection of NAFLD, and this study is one more piece of evidence that a healthy gut is one of the most important aspects of our health. For now, until we know more about how to prevent Klebsiella pneumonia, we can focus on fostering a generally healthy gut environment by eating plenty of prebiotic fiber, cutting down on sugar intake, and taking a daily probiotic.

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