Once the turkey’s been carved and the toasts have been bungled, and everyone’s thrown nutritional caution to the wind, it’s time to eat. And eat we do. On Thanksgiving, the average American takes down between 2,500 and 4,500 calories.
Some guests will try to mask the telltale signs of overeating with athleisure pants and drapey sweaters. A certain population of Thanksgiving revelers, however, doesn't have the option of concealing gluttony. After one-too-many servings of stuffing, the room gets a heads-up in the form of uncontrollable sneezing.
I’m referring, of course, to the genetically cursed who suffer from the best-ever-named condition: snatiation. This medical portmanteau, coined in 1989, comes from “sneezing and satiation.” It also stands for Sneezing Non-controllably At the Time of Indulgence of the Appetite Inherited and Ordained to be Named.
In other words, snatiators fly into sneezing fits when they feel full.
(This is not a joke. It’s kinda funny, but it’s not a joke.)
Scientists don’t entirely understand the issue. Hell, sneezing itself is still mysterious because we lack neuroimaging tools sensitive enough to pinpoint the right neurons. But in regards to snatiation, the leading theory blames a defective parasympathetic nervous system.
(Oh, have you forgotten your high school “parasympathetic nervous system” lesson? Here’s a recap.)
Neurons activated during digestion are located near sneezing neurons in the medulla oblongata, the lower portion of the brain stem. The medulla should connect incoming and outgoing nerve signals from the body like an old-school phone operator. Sometimes, it screws up and crosses the lines, activating multiple nerves at once. When one of our unfortunate snatiators is full, their parasympathetic nervous system alerts the medulla; thanks to a genetic glitch, it triggers both the digestive and sneezing nerves.
Little research has been published on snatiation since the inaugural 1989 paper, whose authors weren’t actually responsible for the condition’s kicky name. That honor goes to Judith Hall, a geneticist who wrote a letter to the editor in response to the study.
“I would like to suggest that a catchy acronym may hasten the process of reporting other families [who exhibit the trait],” wrote Hall, who went on to commend the work. “In all seriousness I really was delighted to see the report, both because it tickled my imagination and because I think it is important to report ‘normal’ traits both structural and behavioral. We tend to teach human genetics by diseases and have few examples of non-pathological traits determined by single genes.”
Snatiation isn’t the only condition marked by sneezing in response to something other than nasal agitation. Somewhere between 18 and 35 percent of people sneeze from staring at the sun, a condition called “photic sneeze reflex.” While better understood than snatiation, sun-sneezing has confused us for a long time. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle asked, “Why does the heat of the sun make us sneeze, but the heat of the fire doesn’t?”
Two millennia later, Francis Bacon tried to answer the question. He realized that sunlight itself didn’t bring on the sniffles because, when he wore a blindfold, his nose was calm and dry. But he actually got the next part wrong, when he blamed photic sneezing on the sun “drawing down of the moisture to the brain.” Fast-forward to the 20th century, when scientists figured out that photic sneezing was a genetic condition. Those scientists, always the acronym-loving comedians, named it “ACHOO!” — for Autosomal-Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst.
What does this have to do with modern-day snatiation? Nothing, to be honest. But if one of your loved ones happens to suffer from this not-quite-debilitating condition (hi, Dad!), they can take comfort knowing they’re not snuffering alone.