Are you yawning even when you’re wide awake? Angela Tufvesson finds out why.
Doctors call it a ‘brainstem-mediated bodily response’, but to the rest of us it’s a yawn. And stifling one during a meeting or at a dinner party is something we’d all rather avoid. We yawn when we are tired or bored, but exactly why we do it is a mystery. Studies have found we also yawn when we are waking, and during other times when our state of alertness is changing. Some people even yawn during exercise.
“There are numerous theories, none of which has been accepted as the scientific basis,” says Dr Linda Friedland, international health expert and author of the Ultimate Guide to Family Health. “One reason is that when we have high levels of carbon dioxide in our blood, we yawn to inhale more oxygen. Another speculated reason for yawning is the desire to stretch one’s muscles.”
Why yawning is infectious is another conundrum in medical circles. Research by London University in the UK found we may yawn because of a need to empathise with other people. Almost every animal yawns spontaneously as part of a reflex response, but only humans and chimps have shown the phenomenon to be catching.
Excessive yawning may indicate a sleep disorder, which Dr Georga Cooke, from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says may be treated with a sleep study, where you are attached to machines that monitor your sleep. Dr Friedland says excessive yawning that has nothing to do with drowsiness may also occur, but this condition is very rare. Known as a vasovagal reaction, it’s caused by the action of the vagus nerve on the blood vessels and may be due to a heart problem.
What you can do
Apart from the obvious – getting enough sleep and preventing boredom – this is a tricky one. You can bring on a yawn just by thinking about it, so try keeping your mind clear of yawn-related thoughts.
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