Your body has millions of parts working together every second of every day. In this series, Dr. Jen Caudlea board-certified family medicine physician and associate professor at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, explains how the body works and all its quirks.
Just thinking about or seeing someone yawning can make you yawn (you are probably yawning right now). Most people yawn because they are tired, but it can also happen unexpectedly and without any triggers. While yawning is typically harmless and lasts only five to 10 seconds, when it occurs excessively it can actually be a symptom of a serious condition.
So why exactly do we yawn? And why is it nearly impossible to stifle a yawn when someone does it in front of you? Let’s find out.
Why do we yawn?
“Most of us equate yawning with being tired, but studies have found that yawning could be caused by your body trying to cool down your brain,” Dr. Jen Caudle tells Yahoo Life.
He describes yawning as the body “running the air conditioning in your head.” Here’s how it happens: “Yawning lengthens the jaw, increasing blood flow to the neck, face and head. Then a deep breath sends a stream of fresh air to the spinal fluid and brain.
Caudle explains that we may yawn when we’re tired or sleep-deprived, as these states can raise the brain’s temperature.
According to experts, yawning can also occur when you’re hungry, bored, mildly stressed, relaxed, or satisfied after a meal.
Is yawning really contagious?
Yawning isn’t necessarily “contagious” in the medical sense of the word, Dr. But as everyone knows, it’s hard to suppress a yawn when someone is doing it in front of you.
Experts have different theories as to why yawning triggers the same behavior in others. Dr Hana Patel, a London-based general practitioner in sleep and mental health, tells Yahoo Life that while experts aren’t exactly sure why contagious yawning occurs, we tend to copy people when we see them yawn.
Caudle points out that humans, other primates, and dogs all find yawning contagious. “It’s a common form of echo phenomena: the automatic imitation of another’s words or actions, which is basically how we learn,” he explains.
Gaither agrees, saying that this mirroring — unconscious imitation of a person’s actions — is one theory that helps explain why yawning can seem contagious.
Interestingly, a 2018 study linked yawning to empathy. It suggests that people who yawn after seeing others yawn are likely highly empathic.
Can yawning be a sign of a health problem?
In some cases, yes, says Patel. He cautions that frequent yawning can be a sign of sleep problems, such as “sleep deprivation, insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or a side effect of medications that cause drowsiness.”
People who experience coffee withdrawal may also yawn repeatedly for several days. Yawning is considered excessive when it occurs three or more times in 15 minutes and without obvious triggers. It can be a symptom of strokes, bleeding around the heart, brain tumors and migraines.
If you’re concerned about the frequency of your yawns, Patel recommends seeing your doctor for an evaluation.
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