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Why Do I Keep Yawning? Should I Be Worried?

If you’re constantly yawning, it may be due to sleep debt, caffeine and nicotine withdrawal, motion sickness, and certain medications and health conditions.
Published
2022-09-06
Updated
10 MINS
Woman at work yawning

In 1888, Jean-Martin Charcot, a Parisian physician who founded modern neurology, reported a 17-year-old patient who yawned 480 times per hour! The only respite she got from the yawns was during sleep. To date, this is the most extreme illustration of excessive yawning in medical history, with the patient experiencing several health issues like epilepsy and anosmia (loss of smell).

If you yourself can’t stop yawning, this example may make you wonder, “Why do I keep yawning? Is there something wrong with me?” Of course, the odds of you yawning 480 times per hour are pretty low. But it does beg the question — how much yawning is too much? When should I get it medically checked out?

If you’ve been feeling uneasy and worried about the frequency of your yawns, this post is for you. Read on to find out what counts as excessive and the real reasons why you keep yawning.

 

Why Do We Yawn?

If you’ve read our previous post on why we yawn, you’ll know it’s because yawning helps:

  • Relieve boredom and stave off sleepiness via a brain-cooling mechanism that regulates the body temperature, 
  • Promote wakefulness and alertness (so you don’t fall asleep at work and elsewhere), 
  • Relieve ear pressure (although scientists believe this is a secondary function of yawning), and
  • Soothe breathlessness to stop the hyperventilations

Our previous post also clears up the common misconception that yawning increases oxygen levels and reduces carbon dioxide. After all, fetuses in the womb yawn even though they don’t have fully developed lungs yet.

Yawning when we see other people yawn is known as contagious yawning and is a social empathy cue activated by the mirror neurons in our brains. That means we still take a deep breath and let it out when we see someone yawn, even when we aren’t tired or bored.

While yawning, in moderate amounts, is benign and necessary under certain circumstances, it’s still perceived socially as inattentive, unproductive, and even rude. Needless to say, frequent yawning further intensifies the impression of you not feeling and functioning at your best. 

How Much Yawning Is Too Much?

So far, scientists haven’t yet given a number on exactly how many yawns are one too many. But a 2018 review said that 20-28 times per day is normal.

The same review also warned that yawning is only considered excessive if “it is spontaneous, more frequent than generally perceived as normal, compulsive, and not triggered by appropriate stimuli including fatigue or boredom.” It also highlighted that yawning three times in 15 minutes is abnormally frequent.

Why Do I Keep Yawning? From Non-medical to Medical

If you find yourself constantly yawning, it may be one or a mixture of the following causes.

Sleep Debt

RISE app showing how much sleep debt you have
RISE tracks your running sleep debt to help you figure out if sleep deprivation is the major cause behind your excessive yawns.

Not getting enough sleep is the no. 1 reason you keep yawning, especially for kids and young adults. In other words, you’ve accrued sleep debt.

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you’ve missed in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs).

To better understand how sleep deprivation increases the frequency of your yawns, we’ll look at the relationship through the Two Laws of Sleep. The Two Laws are based on the two-process model of sleep, the dominant scientific theory as to how sleep “works”, first established by sleep scientist Alexander Borbély in the 1980s. They consist of sleep debt (part of what’s known as sleep homeostasis) and the circadian rhythm (the internal body clock). Here’s how it works:

  • When you wake up in the morning, you naturally experience sleep inertia for up to 90 minutes. Yawns typically peak in intensity during this period of wake-up grogginess. Interestingly, short sleepers and morning chronotypes (read: morning people) yawn less than long sleepers and late chronotypes (i.e., night owls). This is probably because the former’s sleep inertia disappears more quickly than the latter. (Read our post on “Chronotype” to find out what’s yours.) Because sleep debt intensifies sleep inertia, you’ll likely yawn more than usual when you’re sleep-deprived.
  • Throughout the day, your yawning frequency parallels the increase in sleep pressure. From early to late afternoon (depending on your unique chronobiology), expect a small hike in your yawns. The culprit? Your natural circadian dip in energy levels. Obviously, a lack of sleep worsens your energy dip, which is why you keep yawning post-lunch.
  • In the few hours before bed, sleep pressure is at its all-time high. For this reason, you’re yawning more frequently than any other time of day (aside from wake-up grogginess). Once again, sleep deprivation increases your yawning frequency to abnormal levels.

Caffeine and Nicotine Withdrawal

Not many people realize that quitting caffeine or nicotine can also trigger unnaturally frequent yawns.

Research shows that even short-term caffeine withdrawal in habitual coffee drinkers is enough to cause signs of caffeine deprivation, mainly in the form of heightened tiredness like yawning and drowsiness. More scientific data details that caffeine withdrawal symptoms like excessive yawning typically begin about 12-24 hours afterward and can last for more than a week. Similarly, quitting nicotine also evokes excessive yawning.

Motion Sickness

Feeling sick in a moving car or out on a boat means you’re likely experiencing motion sickness. And science explains frequent yawns, accompanied by other symptoms like dizziness and nausea, is a warning sign you need a barf bag before the actual puking starts.

Certain Medications

Excessive yawning is a common side effect of medication, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), opioids (narcotics), and benzodiazepines (sedatives). In the case of SSRIs (a type of antidepressant), research shows they are much preferred to other “commonly used antidepressants such as TCAs and MAOIs” due to their fewer side effects.

That said, SSRIs are anecdotally known to trigger excessive yawning in some individuals. For instance, the scientific literature noted a 32-year-old individual with depression yawning 20-30 times per day after taking SSRIs, specifically fluoxetine and citalopram. Another patient with major depressive disorder also experienced excessive yawning (75-100 times per day) after he was started on the antidepressant sertraline (an SSRI). In both cases, the abnormally frequent yawns weren’t linked to sleep challenges like insomnia or daytime drowsiness. The excess yawning cleared up when the patients switched to another antidepressant, bupropion SR, which is not an SSRI. 

If you suspect your current medications are the reason behind the constant yawns, speak with your primary doctor for other alternatives that won’t incite such a side effect.

Certain Health Conditions

In more severe cases, the never-ending yawns may be due to an underlying health condition.

Neurological Conditions

Per a 2015 article in the Journal of Neurology and Neuroscience, diseases are generally worsened by stress, which manifests as changing concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone). Notably, the Thompson Cortisol Hypothesis highlights the link between abnormally frequent yawns and a higher cortisol load:

  • Increased cortisol levels, along with cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord), may trigger excessive yawning, accompanied by elevated electro-muscular activity in the jaw.
  • Fatigue is also related to higher-than-normal cortisol levels and may manifest as an overheated brain. This, in turn, may also hike up the frequency of yawns, given that yawning helps bring down the brain’s temperature.

For these reasons, science suggests that excessive yawning is symptomatic of several brain disorders. 

For instance, excessive yawning is a hallmark of multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, a small-scale study done by evolutionary biologist Andrew Gallup and evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup found that “yawning provides symptom relief in patients with multiple sclerosis.”

Another in-depth 2018 scientific review lists other neurological conditions in which excessive yawning is linked to:

  • Migraines
  • Stroke 
  • Parkinson’s disease 
  • Epilepsy 
  • Brain swelling 
  • Head trauma 
  • Brain tumor
  • Neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders (NMOSDs)

Non-Neurological Medical Conditions

There are other possible causes of excessive yawning that aren’t neurological in nature. Research shows a spectrum of medical problems such as:

  • Sleep disorders, like insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and narcolepsy, often feature excessive daytime tiredness that intensifies the yawns
  • Liver failure, in which yawning usually appears as a result of fatigue 
  • Low blood sugar levels in diabetics, who are going through insulin therapy
  • Digestive issues like dyspepsia (indigestion) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 
  • Mental health issues like depression 
  • Vasovagal syncope (vasovagal reaction), in which triggers like fear and dehydration overstimulate the vagus nerve, and significantly lower the heart rate and blood pressure to induce fainting

Stop the Yawns; Seize the Day

RISE app screenshot showing your peak energy and dip times
RISE shows your unique circadian rhythm on your Energy Schedule to help you understand why you’re yawning more at certain times of day.

For the most part, excessive yawning is a sign of sleep debt rather than chronic illnesses. But if you have any medical concerns, it’s always a good iimes of day.dea to consult a licensed healthcare professional for peace of mind.

Meanwhile, if you want to stop yawning so much, keep your sleep debt low with the RISE app. It shows your running sleep debt on the Sleep screen, so you will always know when you need to take steps — like napping during your Afternoon Dip or going to bed earlier — to pay it down.

On top of that, RISE reveals your circadian rhythm on your Energy Schedule. This way, you have a clear idea of why you’re yawning more than usual at certain times of day — like during your Grogginess Zone and Afternoon Dip — especially if your sleep debt is above five hours. What’s more, RISE comes with 20+ science-backed sleep habits to strengthen your sleep hygiene and help keep your debt to a minimum.

So, if you want better sleep for better days that don’t involve excessive yawning, download the RISE app today.

More sleep questions answered:

Summary FAQs

Is yawning due to a lack of oxygen?

Contrary to popular misconception, yawning isn’t due to a lack of oxygen. Scientific research shows that breathing in more oxygen or carbon dioxide does not change how often you yawn. This is further backed up by the fact that unborn babies yawn in the womb even without fully developed lungs.

Why can’t I stop yawning?

The primary reason you can’t stop yawning is likely due to sleep debt. Not getting enough sleep means that your sleep inertia (wake-up grogginess) is more intense and your energy dips are lower, contributing to an overall feeling of increased daytime drowsiness. To combat the fatigue and keep yourself awake, you naturally yawn more than usual.

If sleep debt isn’t to blame, other factors like caffeine withdrawal, motion sickness, as well as certain medications and health conditions could be why you can’t stop yawning.

Why do I keep yawning when I’m not tired?

If you keep yawning even though you’re not tired, chances are it’s not due to sleep deprivation but something else. Possible causes include withdrawal of caffeine or nicotine, motion sickness, certain medications like antidepressants, as well as certain health conditions like brain disorders, sleep disorders, and digestive problems.

How can I stop the excessive yawning?

If sleep debt is the reason behind the excessive yawning, a tool like the RISE app can help you pay down your debt and keep it low to feel and function at your best every day.

On the other hand, if sleep debt isn’t the culprit, you’ll need to identify the actual cause for the appropriate treatment. For instance, if a certain medication is causing you to yawn more than usual, speak with your primary doctor for other alternatives that won’t incite the constant yawns.

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