Comforting Carbs?

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger: Erika Wehmhoff, Undergraduate in Microbiology

As I was unpacking my groceries the other day, I noticed a trend in my food choices. Apples. Milk. Bread. Potatoes. Pasta. Crackers. Cereal. Oatmeal. Popcorn. Crescent Rolls. That breaks down to produce, dairy, carb, carb, carb, a fourth carb, carb, carb, oh and another carb.This seems mighty unbalanced, I thought to myself. And then it dawned on me. I am a carbivore. I like my carbohydrates and apparently I like them in large quantities. And what’s not to like? Carbs represent some of the best and most delicious food on the planet. They provide us with energy. They are often comfort foods. They can also represent an artisanal skill (baking bread is not as easy as it would seem). And if none of these convince you, I think the popularity of Italian restaurants is evidence enough. Nothing could ever be wrong with consuming carbs…Right?

Wrong. Up until a couple weeks ago, I would totally have been on board with that statement. But then I saw a heading for an article on CNN, “Man's gut fermented food into alcohol, making him drunk, case study finds.” Say what?! Of course my curiosity was piqued, so I read through the article and then through the magical workings of the Internet, I found and read through the case study. According to the study, a man in Texas presented as being in a nearly constant state of drunkenness…for five years. Five. Years. And while every now and again he would consume small amounts of alcohol, most of the time he wouldn’t consume anything alcoholic. So how on earth could this be happening?

Enter Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism used for centuries in the production of bread (as a leavening agent) and alcohol (as a fermentor).Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a single celled organism that you will most often hear called Baker’s Yeast and Brewer’s Yeast. This organism is ubiquitous in the environment, and it is commonly isolated from healthy individuals’ throats and stool. We inhale and ingest it quite frequently, and it is often found on fruits and vegetables.While in most people, Saccharomyces cerevisiae is completely harmless, in the sixty year old man in Texas, it became the cause of an extremely rare disease.

Gut Fermentation Syndrome, also referred to as Auto-Brewery Syndrome or Drunkenness Disease, is what occurs when there is an overgrowth of yeast in the gut.Several yeast species have caused this
disease, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Candida albicans, Candida krusei, and Candida glabrata.These yeasts, in the presence of an aerobic (oxygen rich) environment, will grow quickly and excrete CO2. The pressure the CO2 creates is what makes bread rise. But when you put these yeasts in an anaerobic (oxygen deprived) environment, like in a fermentation vat, there is no air. In this type of environment, the yeasts focus less on respiration and instead put all their energy towards consuming carbohydrates and turning them into ethanol. This is essentially what is occurring in the human body when a person has Gut Fermentation Syndrome. The anaerobic human gastrointestinal tract acts as a fermentation vat for the yeast.Whatever carbohydrates are consumed will be fermented and turned into ethanol by the yeast. This ethanol will be absorbed by the body and produce the same effect as drinking alcohol would.

Is this a dream come true? Hardly. While it may seem to be advantageous (“Drunk with no alcohol, where do I sign up?!” some might exclaim), the level of drunkenness the man was in was debilitating and dangerous to his body.It affected his work, his personal relationships, and his well-being. All of this because of a couple extra yeast cells in his body.

So it would seem that perhaps carbohydrates aren’t completely infallible, loathe as I am to admit it. Will understanding Gut Fermentation Syndrome lessen my consumption of my beloved carbs? Judging by the four boxes of cereal I just purchased… probably not.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Image Source: AJ Cann.