Yawning is a funny old thing. We do it when we’re tired. We do it when we see someone else yawn. Some of us try to stifle our yawns. Some people consider yawning a bit rude. For something we seem to do so often, and in so many different contexts, yawning is something most of us know very little about.
Here at Bensons, we had a little time on our hands. So, to pass the time we decided to find out a little more about this strange bodily function we all experience on an almost daily basis.
Why do we yawn? Is it a sign of tiredness or boredom? Or, as some people believe, does yawning mean we need more oxygen? Read on to find out more about yawning, including why you’ll almost certainly yawn at least once while reading this (not at all boring) post.
What is a Yawn?
Yawning is and uncontrollable urge and something we all do almost every day. And, there are many theories surrounding the purpose of yawning.
Studies into animals like sealions (1) have shown that mammals, including humans, tend to yawn more frequently when resting or before falling asleep. This leads us to think that yawning is often related to tiredness.
In fact, yawning can increase in a number of different scenarios – when we’re tired, when we’re bored, when we’re stressed or running a fever, and when we fall prey to the contagious yawn of another person.
Theories behind yawning
According to resident Sleep Scientist, Dr Sophie Bostock, there is still no decisive science which explains why we yawn. There are three leading theories…
1. We yawn to wake up
Yawning is often associated with stretching behaviour. The act of yawning stretches lung tissue as well as the lungs themselves and gives joints and muscles a good flex too. As well as giving the body a mini wake up call, yawning also seems to force blood into the face and brain, temporarily making you more alert. Opening and flushing the eyes may lead to an increase in visual alertness.
This could be why we tend to yawn more when we’re carrying out sedentary activities like driving, watching TV or listening to someone talk – not because we’re bored but because our body needs a little reminder that it’s still awake.
2. We yawn to cool down
Yawning involves a deep in breath which could draw cool air into the mouth, and subsequently cooler blood into the brain. The idea that yawning is a thermoregulatory mechanism is backed by research showing that people yawned more frequently when they had a fever induced experimentally (2). We also yawn less during the colder months of the year (3), however there is no evidence that yawning is an effective cooling mechanism for the brain.
3. We yawn to connect with others
Yawning is a behaviour observed across most social animals. It could be that yawning as a cue that an individual is struggling to stay awake has a protective effect on the herd; for example by indicating that a change of protective sentry duty is required. Studies in rodents have found that stimulating the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding and mental health, can trigger yawning (4).
Other hormones known to increase yawning include dopamine and cortisol. Cortisol is involved in the stress response, which reinforces the idea that yawning is part of an arousal response.
Why Do We Yawn When We We’re Tired? Yawning Questions Answered
So, what does yawning mean to different people in different situations? Let’s answer some common yawning queries…
Does yawning equalise pressure in our heads?
Potentially. It’s a sound theory, as anyone who’s ever suffered with blocked ears on a flight can attest to. However, since swallowing already does essentially the same thing, this isn’t the main reason we normally yawn.
Does yawning mean lack of oxygen?
In short, no.
This is an older theory. And, at one time experts did believe that yawning increased oxygen intake to balance things out if the brain received too much carbon dioxide. This has since been debunked.
Is yawning rude?
In most countries and cultures yawning openly is frowned upon, hence your mother hissing at you to ‘cover your mouth!’ as a child. In fact, the societal expectation to hide your mouth when you yawn is now theorised by some to be linked to disease avoidance, just like stifling a sneeze or cough (5).
What’s more, yawns are an involuntary bodily function. And, if you’re not making a conscious choice to yawn, why would anyone perceive the act of yawning as rude?
Can yawning indicate health problems?
A healthy person can yawn up to 28 times a day (6), although this does vary. Excessive yawning, however, is seen in people with health conditions such as someone who has suffered a stroke, as well as people suffering with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. You may also yawn more if you have a migraine (7).
Why Do We Yawn When We See Someone Else Yawn? Weird Yawning Facts:
Keep the boredom yawns at bay with these yawning facts:
- Yawning is contagious. Yawning when you see someone else yawn is a sign of empathy. Studies show that less empathetic individuals, or those high on the autism spectrum, are less likely to ‘catch’ a yawn (8).
- Paralysed people have been observed to regain motor function while yawning . Doctors have noticed that patients paralysed on one side can temporarily regain complete function during a yawn. This 1923 discovery led to the conclusion that yawning is a primitive behaviour outside of conscious control (9).
- Yawning is one of the first things we do . Foetuses are seen to yawn in the womb from as early as 24 weeks (10).
- Even Hippocrates had a theory . In 400 BC the original wellbeing influencer suggested that yawning expelled bad air from ill bodies.
- Soldiers often yawn before jumping out of a plane . This supports the theory that yawning activates us. One study showed that parachuting members of the US Army Special Forces caught flies before taking a leap (11).
- Yawning feels great . When asked by scientists, people rated yawning an 8.5 out of ten on the feel-good scale (12).
- Reading about yawning can make you yawn . 55% of people reading this article will probably start yawning (13).
Why Do You Yawn?
If every day feels like a struggle and all you do is yearn for bedtime, it could be time to update your sleep regime. Here are our top practical tips for reducing that yawning feeling.
Prepare for bed
A restful bedtime routine can make it easier to drop off. Pack away devices to minimise the stimulating effects of technology, grab a warm bath and settle down with a book and a warm milky drink.
Keep it consistent
Sticking to a routine of going to bed and waking up at around the same time each day is recommended.
Create a soothing atmosphere
A bedroom that feels restful can help you to drift off. Decorate in calming tones, put work equipment away and tidy clutter into drawers and wardrobes before climbing into bed.
Use the right mattress
The wrong mattress can play havoc with your sleep and so can sleeping on a bed that’s past its best. Shop carefully and with expert advice to find the right mattress to suit you. Check out the eve range of mattresses for modern memory foam comfort.
Make your bed perfect
Creaking bed frame? Could be time for a new bed. Pain in the neck? Perhaps your pillow is overdue an update. Can’t get warm or feeling too hot? Your duvet could be all wrong. Creating a bed that’s as perfect as possible will minimise tossing and turning, bringing the joy back into bedtime.
Sleep Better with a Bensons for Beds Bedroom
If those yawns are telling you it’s time for a new bed head to Bensons for Beds. We’ve got all you need to create the haven that’ll give you your most restful night’s sleep yet. Not only will you find a wide range of mattresses to suit every sleeper in store and online but bed frames and bases, bedding and even matching furniture for surroundings that won’t give you nightmares.
To place an order or to pick the brains of our sleep experts call into your local showroom or call 0808 144 6160.