Yawning is something that most people do several times every day, without evening thinking about it.
It is most commonly done before falling asleep and when you wake up and so is usually considered as a sign of being tired.
But why do we really yawn and what does it mean?
There still isn’t very much that is known about yawning, with comparatively little research done on the topic.1
However, here is what we know so far.
What is yawning?
Yawning is an involuntary action, which means that our bodies do this automatically without conscious effort.
It is a reflex, where a deep inhalation opens the jaw wide and then the inhaled air is expelled once the lungs are full.2
As this happens, the eardrums stretch and the eyes also tightly close which may cause them to water.3
Some yawns are shorter, just lasting a couple of seconds and some yawns may go on for much longer.
Some are also quiet or almost silent, whereas sometimes the exhalation of air will cause a deep sigh.
On average, adults yawn around 20 times each day and yawning starts before we are even born – we yawn in the womb!4
Yawning is not exclusive to humans either. Lots of different animals also yawn, including dogs, monkeys and even snakes!5
Why do we yawn?
The biggest causes of yawning are fatigue and boredom and there are lots of theories as to why we yawn.
One is that when we feel tired, we do not breathe as deeply as usual and so our bodies take in less oxygen and therefore yawning helps to control the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.6
Another theory is that we yawn whenever the state of our alertness changes, so we yawn when we are tired, when we awaken and at any other time when our alert levels increase or decrease.7
Yawning can also help us to feel more awake and alert as it stretches out our lungs and lung tissue, flexing muscles and joints and increasing heart rate.8
So maybe you have been yawning in that important meeting in order to stay alert and keep your concentration!
Why do I keep yawning?
Excessive yawning is defined as yawning which occurs more than once per minute.9
If you do keep yawning, you might want to consider whether there is something else going on.
Some underlying causes of excessive yawning include sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or side effects of medication.
If you are worried about excessive or constant yawning, you should, of course, see your GP.
Is yawning contagious?
Have you ever yawned and then the person you are with also yawns?
What about your dog? If not, watch them next time you yawn and see if they “catch” it from you!
It appears that yawning is contagious amongst humans and animals, however there is very little understood on this.10
How to stop yawning
Although it is involuntary, yawning can sometimes become a bit of a problem.
It might be that you are yawning during important meetings or yawning when someone is telling you something and you are worried that you might come across as rude even though you cannot help it!
There are a few things that you can do to keep from yawning when you do not want to.
Keep your cool
When our brain’s temperature is too warm we tend to yawn and so make sure you keep cool.11
Have a cold drink and keep it handy, to take a sip every time you get the urge to yawn. Or you could try snacking on some ice-cold fruit or vegetables such as watermelon or cucumber.
Take a layer off, open a window or turn on the air con to cool yourself down.
Splash your face and arms with cold water or use a cold compress on your forehead for 10 minutes before your meeting. This should keep those yawns at bay!
When you feel the urge to yawn coming on, take some really deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Really concentrate on your breathing and this will help to keep you alert and distract you from yawning.
Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Regulatory Affairs
Bhupesh started his career as a clinical toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products. After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
In his spare time, Bhupesh likes to cycle and has been learning to speak Korean for several years.
Last updated: 11 December 2020