July 01, 2022

What Is the Real Reason for Yawning?

what causes people to yawn

Everyone yawns. Even animals yawn. But why we do it is still a bit of a mystery. Read on to learn about the latest research on this unique behavior.  

What is Yawning?

Yawning is such a familiar, automatic, and uncontrollable action that you may never have stopped to think about its components. You open your mouth wide, take a deep breath, and immediately exhale slowly. You may also close your eyes tight, causing them to water. In most cases, people feel more relaxed right after yawning.

So, that’s the experience. But what’s the reason for yawning?

What Are the Causes for Yawning?

There are several potential reasons for yawning. Most of them seem to center on changes in physical and mental activity levels. Some of the leading theories about yawning include: 

  • Yawning equalizes pressure in your ears. People tend to yawn when they’re in an airplane or car that changes elevation significantly. Doing so helps compensate for the change in air pressure. 
  • Yawning addresses respiratory needs. Yawning causes you to take in more oxygen and elevates your heart rate. So, some experts think the action is designed in part to help clear toxins out of the blood and increase the flow of fresh oxygen. 
  • Yawning cools the brain. There isn’t much evidence for this theory, but some researchers believe you’re more likely to yawn when your brain is slightly overheated.
  • Yawning stretches the lungs and rib cage muscles. It may also increase your heart rate. These actions taken together may help boost your alertness. 
  • Yawning is a sign your brain or body is changing states. People often yawn before bedtime, when becoming bored, or after exercising. That’s led researchers to believe yawning plays a role in transitioning from one state to another. 
  • Yawning is a social cue and response. Why is a yawn contagious? This may be the answer. Yawning is a way people signal one another about their state of alertness. If you yawn after someone else does, you may be demonstrating empathy for them.  

Can Yawning Be a Symptom of a Medical Problem?

Yawning a few times when you’re bored or getting ready for bed is normal. However, if you feel your yawning is excessive, you should talk with your doctor. 

You may learn that fatigue or drowsiness from insufficient sleep is causing your yawning. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy can also affect yawning, as can certain medications used to treat depression and anxiety

In some cases, excessive yawning can be the sign of a more serious medical condition like a brain tumor, heart attack, or bleeding in or around the heart. Epilepsy, liver failure and multiple sclerosis can also make you yawn more, as can conditions that affect your ability to control your body temperature. 

What to Do if You Can’t Stop Yawning

Your doctor can determine why you’re yawning excessively. They can then prescribe treatments and actions to resolve the problem. These may include:

  • Finding alternatives to medications that might be causing your excessive yawning 
  • Wearing a breathing device overnight
  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Adhering to a regular sleep schedule to improve sleep quality
  • Exercising to reduce stress 
  • Maintaining a cooler sleeping environment
  • Eating cool foods, drinking cold beverages, or applying a cool compress near bedtime

If you think your yawning is a problem, contact the Baptist Health Sleep Center to talk with one of our sleep experts. 

Learn More.