Last week I forced myself to stay up two nights in a row to work. I certainly had lots to do, but I also wanted to see what happened to my brain if I induced sleep deprivation. The following morning, I was yawning quite a bit while sharing the story with Sam. He jokingly snapped, “Hey, stop that! You’re making me yawn!”
I thought that was hilarious and kept my eye on him for a couple of minutes, and sure enough, when I yawned, he yawned. Twice! Yawns are known to be “contagious,” especially if you are emotionally connected with the person yawning. It is also said that empathetic people are more apt to “catch” a yawn. This little quirk of “catching” a yawn isn’t totally based on empathy though, at least according to a PLOS One article.
Sometimes saying the word out loud or reading the word “yawn” triggers a yawn. Yawns are usually satisfying in nature, and if they’re not, one theory is that the subconscious mind is unable to let go. One yawn lasts about 6 seconds and during that time, your heart probably beats faster.
Did I get you to yawn just yet? Well, it’s not for lack of trying! I had to peruse about 27 journal articles to write this blog and the monotony of that (as well as reading the word “yawn” a million times) made me yawn so much I almost fell asleep! Keep reading because the rest of my article is sure to bore you… *wink*
A yawn does not really happen just because you’re bored or tired. I mean it could, but it doesn’t have to. For decades, doctors said it was your brain’s attempt to pull more oxygen in for the tissues. Research on animals published in The International Journal of Applied Basic Medical Research in June 2017 points to yawning as a way to drain lymph from around the brain. That’s interesting because we are only now realizing the brain actually has a lymphatic system.
In humans, yawning is not typically considered a Mr. Tough Guy move. Whereas in the animal kingdom, it’s often a sign of aggression. Picture a baboon baring its teeth – yikes! – or one of those beautiful but aggressive Siamese fighting fish posturing against a male in the tank next door.
We, meaning humans, yawn in the womb, and and from around 11 to 20 weeks post-conception, it can even be seen on ultrasound. (Yes, it’s boring in there for sure.)
Another interesting fact about yawning is that medications can cause it. For example, one of the biggest offenders is the category of antidepressants, especially the SSRIs and SNRIs like Prozac and Cymbalta respectively. There are many others in that category not listed here.
Benzodiazepines (clonazepam, alprazolam) and opiate analgesics (hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine) will often trigger yawning attacks – it’s a well-documented side effect during normal treatment. It’s apt to happen more frequently during ‘interdose withdrawal’ (the hours in-between your scheduled doses of the day), or more likely when you quit taking these drugs (which requires a long tapering process).
Yawning attacks induced from antidepressants, benzos and opiates are almost always annoying and uncomfortable. Anesthetics used to sedate you before surgery can cause yawning. And a big yawn-inducing category are the dopaminergics used in Parkinson’s such as L-dopa or Levodopa (Sinemet contains that) or Apokyn (Apomorphine).
Yawning becomes more frequent when you take these meds because of their impact on neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and acetylcholine. When those substances tilt in your brain, yawning begins.
Certain diseases impact your ability to yawn. Did you know that the complete disappearance of yawns could indicate damage to your hypothalamus? It’s specifically damage to the dopaminergic (dopamine-producing) neurons. When that happens, you have less dopamine production and receptor sensitivity in the body. This is why Parkinson’s patients yawn rather infrequently, even if you yawn in front of them or try to get them to yawn. It’s because that part of their brain is under siege and damaged. Likewise, the effectiveness of Parkinson’s drug therapy can actually be gauged if the patient begins to yawn again.
Another possible association with easy yawning is depression. While it’s not yet proven, there is data that suggests you’re more depressed if you yawn a lot. Untangling this is difficult in my opinion because people with depression often have insomnia so they are going to naturally be more fatigued during the day, and probably yawn more too. Also, there is the factor of age, it’s assumed that as you age, you’re more likely to be depressed. Think about that, as you age, you also have more damage to your brain and the neurons in the hypothalamus (see above), so is it dopaminergic loss or depression? This is why I’m not convinced that the study linking depression to yawning is scientifically sound. It’s just a theory.
Yawning is a common sign of anxiety too. Even dogs yawn when they’re nervous. If you are nervous or worried about an activity, you might find yourself yawning a little more than you should. This is embarrassing if it’s happening at a big board meeting or when you’re about to speak in front of the PTA. Regardless, take a deep breath and just start talking. When you talk, the frequency of yawning goes down. As with so many things associated with our bodies, it’s strange, but true.