Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Gag Reflux
Have you ever choked on nothing? Sometimes it happens when you see something disturbing. Maybe you brushed your teeth too aggressively. Whatever the cause, sometimes we convulse in the throat, unable to breathe and on the brink of vomiting. We all call it gagging, and it’s a really weird thing that humans do. Have you ever wondered about gagging? Whether you were hoping to overcome it or you were just having random shower thoughts, the gag reflex is a true mystery to most people. Today that mystery ends. We’re going to cover the entire topic of the gag reflex. We’ll talk about what it is, what causes it and what you can do about it. We’ll even get a little deep into the medical understanding of the gag reflex. If you’ve ever had any curiosity on this subject, you’re in the right place.
What Is the Gag Reflex, Really?
Most people have dealt with their own gag reflex at some point. For some, it can be a bit of a problem. Maybe you were trying to chug beer and the reflex held you back. Maybe it was something else entirely. Chances are, you didn’t have a clear idea of what the gag reflex was all about at the time.
In medicine, it’s called the pharyngeal reflex or a laryngeal spasm. The physiological process at play is a contraction of muscles in the back of the throat. We’ll get into triggers for the reflex in a minute, but the primary reason your body does this is to prevent choking. That’s why the reflex tends to be so much stronger in babies. When you can’t chew, it’s easy to choke. As you grow up and learn how to eat (literally), the gag reflex relaxes. Despite that, it still triggers among most adults under the right circumstances.
Even worse, it’s rarely related to choking among adults. Think about it. You’ve inevitably choked on something in your adult life. Where was your gag reflex then? It turns out that mechanisms that are great for newborn babies don’t always perform as well for full-fledged adults. Who knew? Instead, the gag reflex is often more of a nuisance than a benefit in your daily life.
What Makes You Gag?
We can split gag triggers into two categories: physical and psychological. In general, a physical trigger occurs when something stimulates sensitive tissue in the mouth and throat. If you’ve ever been aggressive brushing your tongue with a toothbrush, you’ve experimented with this trigger.
The most common triggers are the roof of the mouth, uvula, back of the tongue, tonsils and surrounding areas. When anything touches one of these spots, gagging instantly triggers. If it’s severe enough, it can even lead to heaving and vomiting. That said, no two people respond to triggers in exactly the same way. The limit between stimulation and gag triggering is always different. If you’re curious about yours, it’s easy to test the next time you brush your teeth. Slowly move the brushing further and further back until you feel a response.
Before you shove that toothbrush all the way down your throat, you should know one thing. Some people don’t have a gag reflex at all. Whether born that way or through development, roughly one-third of the adult population won’t ever gag (wipe that excited look off your face). If you can toothbrush your tonsils, you’re in that group. Maybe it’s time to take up sword swallowing. You’ve been given a gift, and you’re just wasting it.
Not all gags are caused by sticking something down your throat (heh, heh). There are a bunch of medical situations that can lead to gagging, and the most common is heartburn. Anyone over 30 reading this might be able to relate a little too well. Not all heartburn will cause gagging. Instead, this is a specific kind of night terror.
If you have heartburn and you lay down, the acid has free rein to creep up your esophagus. Eventually, it’s going to get into the lower throat, and it can actually trigger a gag from behind. If you’ve ever woken up gagging on your own acid, you know how unpleasant this experience can be.
Imagine abruptly rising from a dead sleep. You’re choking for air. Your throat burns and you don’t know why. It’s easy to panic, and that only makes things worse. You don’t remember coming to your feet, but there you are. Slowly, your throat relaxes, and you can breathe again. Your body’s own defense mechanism felt like it was trying to kill you.
That’s what heartburn-induced gagging feels like, and good luck getting back to sleep. The adrenaline surge that comes with it is usually enough to go run a half-marathon. We’ll talk more about managing gagging later, but for this particular problem, controlling the acid is the best way to prevent the problem. Don’t eat before bed. Use antacids. All of that heartburn control stuff is your solution. You should already know about most of this.
Aside from heartburn, there are a bunch of other medical conditions that can induce gagging. They range from simple stomach bugs to exotic diseases. Rather than get that deep into medicine, here’s a link for you nerds who want to know more. In general, if you have persistent, unexplained gagging, talk to your doctor. It doesn’t mean you have throat cancer, but it’s not something that should be ignored. Also, it might be throat cancer.
If you Google “psychological gagging,” the first thing that pops up is anxiety. We’ll go into detail in a moment, but this is a clear example of how your psychology can make you gag. Anxiety isn’t the only cause, and when you delve into this, it gets a little weird, if not completely fascinating. This is one of those cases that really exposes the idea of mind over matter. Simply thinking about things that can make you gag will trigger a reflex in some people. Let’s get into it.
Let’s start with anxiety. Anxiety comes in a lot of shapes, sizes and intensity. Even within the same person, not all anxiety experiences are the same. But, modern medicine has identified that uncontrollable gagging is a real symptom of anxiety. It’s not some weird, random fear of choking that causes it either. Instead, the dominating theory is that this is related to stress hormones. Anxiety causes the body to produce way more stress hormones than normal, and in some cases, that can lead to uncommon stress responses. Basically, your body is desperately trying to figure out what is triggering the stress. Since it can’t find any pain receptors, it starts guessing for ways to reduce the stress. Maybe you’re choking?! Is it poison? Let’s just purge everything and start from there! Thus, a gag reflex occurs. As if anxiety wasn’t enough of a problem already . . .
This sheds light on other forms of psychological gagging. Have you ever gagged by seeing or smelling something gross? Have you at least seen this happen to someone else? This is another form of psychologically induced gagging. In general, it’s usually related to empathy. You see, hear or smell something that would make you gag if it you were being exposed to it directly. Maybe someone near you throws up and it makes you gag. The empathy allows you to relate to the feeling of vomiting so well that your brain induces a gag response to make sure you don’t choke on your own vomit (even though it’s not really there). It’s the same story if you gag watching a gory movie or medical procedures on TV. If your empathy is strong enough, you release stress hormones and your brain takes the perceived threat seriously. From there, it’s pretty much identical to anxiety-induced gagging.
In other cases, a gag reflex happens without a direct stimulus. Just like with anxiety, other strong emotions can trigger a gagging response. While these can be hormonally induced, there’s something else that often comes into play. If you think about the phrase “being choked up,” it refers to when you want to cry and get a lump in your throat. That lump is caused by you. You’re clenching the muscles in the back of the throat to try and hold in extreme emotion. The clenched muscles are the same ones that cause gagging. If you clench long or hard enough, it can trigger a muscle spasm that will present as gagging.
From the other side of things, strong emotions can cause other physical symptoms. If you’re snot-dripping-down-the-face crying (don’t judge!), you have a new potential cause of gagging. The mucus will drain down the back of your throat just as much as it runs down your face (you’re welcome for that thought). As it can inhibit breathing, it can also trigger a gag reflex. This is one of those rare cases where gagging might actually help you breathe.
More to the point, extreme emotion can hit you from both ends. Your sinuses can respond while you clench, and you might release stress hormones. Altogether, you’ve formed a cocktail for gagging, and it’s why a lot of people experience. Even adults who don’t normally gag can become afflicted when things get bad enough.
The last psychological gagging trigger is fatigue. Well, this is more a mix of psychology and physiology. Let’s break it down. When you get tired, you’re prone to yawning. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll yawn just from reading this. A good, solid yawn also stretches and engages the gagging muscles, and it can trigger a full reflex in response.
The thing is, fatigue can induce gagging even if you aren’t yawning. This is a lot less understood, but there are some reasonable guesses as to why. Imagine you’re on a long drive late at night. You’re fighting sleep. In order to make sure you stay awake, you unconsciously clench. Your brain intuitively understands that you need to stay uncomfortable to stay awake. Muscular tension helps prevent the relaxation that would lull you to sleep.
It’s possible that some people clench their throats in this state. It’s also possible that sleep deprivation is messing with hormone regulation. It could be a combination of states. Science has yet to fully explain it, but the short version is that sleepiness can cause gagging.
Managing the Gag Reflex
After all of this talk about triggering the gag reflex, it’s inevitable to wonder if there’s any way to control it. As a matter of fact, there are multiple things that can work. As you already read, some people don’t have a gag reflex. While that can be natural, it can also be trained. Competition eaters, for instance, are known to train away their reflex so they can eat faster. Other people just don’t want the extra anxiety symptom. Thankfully, there are methods besides hormone regulation and relaxation techniques. So, let’s explore the options.
Training the Reflex
If you want to reduce your gag response, here’s the foolproof training method. It starts when you brush your teeth (hopefully this is at least a daily routine for you). When you’re nearing the end of your scrubbing routine, go ahead and start gently brushing your tongue. You’re going to slowly move deeper into the back of the mouth until you find the limit of tolerance. There should be a point where you feel close to gagging, but you aren’t quite there. That’s the spot that needs your focus. Gently brush on that area for about 10 seconds. That’s it. Go ahead and finish your brushing routine.
If you do this every time you brush your teeth, you’ll slowly desensitize your gag reflex. It can take up to a couple of months, but you should notice that you can creep back a little further each time you brush. After a while, the gag reflex goes away.
Here’s the strange part. For some people, this training is permanent, and they never have to worry about it again. For others, the training has to remain part of their daily routine for life. You’ll have no way to know which category describes you until you try.
Reasons to Fight the Gag
We all know what you’re thinking. There’s only one reason to learn how to control a gag reflex. Get your mind out of the gutter. While an accomplished porn start might agree with you, the simple truth is that this isn’t an issue in everyday life, and you know it. Sexuality can be your motivation for learning about the gag reflex if you want it to, but there are more serious reasons to want to take control of your throat’s destiny.
We already discussed competitive eating. It’s probably one of the more fun reasons to fight the gag. A more common issue is taking oral medication. There are people in this world with an exceptionally strong gag reflex. They often struggle to swallow pills that are prescribed, and with some medical conditions, this can get serious. There are a billion methods that people explore to find ways to take pills, but training the gag reflex is one of the most reliable.
Aside from pills, there are a lot of occasions when gagging can really ruin what you’re trying to do. Stress-induced gagging can trigger during exercise, critical work moments, scary movies and all number of other situations. For more than a few people, gagging really does impact their daily lives. Ten seconds a day seems like a small price to pay to overcome those issues.
The last thing we’ll mention is that there is medication that suppresses gagging. It can be a little tricky since some people have trouble taking it in the first place, but it does exist. We’re not going to break down gag-preventing medication. Instead, we’ll suggest that if you think you need a medical solution, talk to your doctor. Don’t leave the vetting of drugs like this to random internet search results.
That’s about all there is to say about the gag reflex. It’s a well-documented part of your physiology. It can make things weird and unpleasant. It can also be the source of endless dirty humor. If you have any questions left after this, it’s time to consider med school. You’ll need an M.D. to dive any deeper in nature’s favorite choke-prevention technique.