While most of us will yawn late at night and even after waking from sleep, it is not uncommon to yawn intermittently during the day. Whether you are just tired, experiencing an afternoon dip or bored, yawning is a reflex action that has physiologic and even social implications. It is even considered to be a non-verbal method of communication.
Yawning is involuntary, normal and occurs frequently. However, there is a point where yawning may be considered to be excessive. In order to understand the reasons why yawning may be excessive and even be a symptom of some disease, it is important to first understand why and how yawning occurs.
What is Yawning?
Yawning is a reflex action that leads to deep inhalation through the mouth followed by short exhalation. It is an involuntary process like the cough reflex and swallowing reflex. While yawning is a normal mechanism, the exact cause of it is still not yet fully understood. However, in cases where it is excessive, yawning has been linked to certain diseases.
Why do we yawn?
The exact cause of yawning is not well understood. It appears to occur more frequently when a person is tired, sleepy and/or bored. We all experience these bouts of yawning. For example we tend to yawn when in a long and drawn out meeting or lecture which is not mentally stimulating.
Yawning is also associated with reduced oxygen levels in the blood although it also occurs in hyperventilation where the blood oxygen levels are high. It also believed to be a means of arousing a person who is on the verge of falling asleep or who is severely fatigued.
Another theory is that yawning may be a means of conveying one’s fatigue or boredom in a social setting. The ‘contagious yawn’ may be the result of one person watching another yawn which inadvertently triggers the same reaction. However, this could also be as a result of boredom among both parties.
It has also been hypothesized that yawning may be a thermoregulatory mechanism that serves to cool the brain due to elevated temperatures.
It is unlikely that one reason can solely explain the cause or significance of yawning, and the yawn reflex may serve multiple functions. Whatever the reason, yawning is a complex brain stem reflex that may signal serious disease when it is frequent and excessive.
Causes of Excessive Yawning
Physiological causes are not related to any disease process.
- Insufficient sleep
- Shift work (night-shift, day-shift)
- Jet lag
Excessive yawning may be a symptom of many disorders and diseases.
- Insomnia where there is difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep for long enough can cause excessive yawning.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness is a common condition associated with insomnia where a person feels sleepy during the day, even after sleeping during the night.
- Narcolepsy is where a person experiences severe excessive daytime sleepiness and may be unable to prevent episodes of falling asleep during the day.
- Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing momentarily stops while asleep. This causes a person to awake suddenly and disrupts the normal sleep cycle.
- Hyperventilation syndrome is where a person breathes deeply and rapidly typically with associated anxiety and stress.
- Anxiety disorder where there are episodes of extreme nervousness, fear and worry which are usually for no identifiable reason.
- Depression is a mental health disorder where a person experiences a low mood or sadness that persists for long periods.
- Epilepsy is a condition where there is abnormal activity within the brain which causes episodes of seizures, alterations in behavior or abnormal perception.
- Brain tumor is a mass within the brain tissue which may either be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).
- Human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that is transmitted through the bite of a fly.
- Vasovagal response is a sudden change in heart rate and blood pressure that can lead to loss of consciousness. Yawning may precede nausea, dizziness and fainting.
- Heart attack is where a portion of the heart muscle dies due to insufficient oxygen. This is often due to a narrow coronary artery with limited blood flow to the heart muscle.
- Aortic dissection is where a tear occurs in the inner wall of the aorta and may lead to a full tear in the aortic wall.
- Withdrawal from sedatives or opiates may also lead to unusual symptoms like yawning. It is also reported among tobacco smokers who stop smoking.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning reduces blood oxygen levels in the bloodstream and causes sleepiness which can lead to excessive yawning.
How to Prevent Excessive Yawning
When excessive yawning is due to a disease then this underlying disease needs to be treated. By treating and managing the cause, the symptom of excessive yawning will resolve. However, when this frequent yawning is not due to a disease then the following measures may be helpful. Most of these measures involve staying active and alert.
- Take frequent breaks between prolonged activities that require mental acuity and extended periods of sitting, like lectures and meetings. It is important to wake up and walk around during these breaks.
- Drink water frequently, especially cold water. It can help to keep a person awake and alert. It can also lead to more frequent urination which compels a person to move and seek a toilet thereby helping with staying awake.
- Try deep breathing during long meetings. It does not have to be pronounced or loud. By taking a deep breath, holding the breath till the count of three and then exhaling, the blood oxygen levels may increase.
- Moderate use of stimulants like caffeine may be helpful for short term purposes. Coffee is one of the more common sources of caffeine. However, it is important to not overdo the caffeine as it is a diuretic and dehydration can also cause fatigue.
- Ensure that there is adequate ventilation in the area where most time is being spent. Lowering the room temperature moderately may also help to stay awake and alert. However, very low temperatures can also contribute towards sleepiness.