Advances in the understanding of psychosomatic illness began with research into hysteria by physicians like Jean Martin Charcot, depicted here teaching a lesson on the condition.

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Psychosomatic Conditions

Couvade syndrome is currently not a recognized medical condition, although the St. George's University study gave credibility to its existence. It seems logical that the syndrome can be explained as a reaction by the body to an emotional state in the mind. The next step is to find this link between mind and body, but so far, this link has proven rather elusive.

It wasn't until the 18th century that the investigation into the mind's effects on physical illness began in earnest. European physicians looking into female hysteria (which had previously been thought to originate in the uterus), came to believe that it was a medical condition that could be explained as a reaction to a highly charged emotional state. Since then, the intensity of the investigation into psychosomatic conditions has waxed and waned, although it has never been abandoned.

Psychosomatic conditions may manifest in different ways. For example, it may be looked upon as strictly a mental disorder, as in the case of a patient with Munchausen syndrome, in which a person is convinced that he or she is sick in order to gain attention. While the symptoms are strictly in the patient's mind, they may feel quite real to him or her. It can also manifest as the result of fear or anxiety, as in conversion disorder, a mental condition in which emotional distress manifests itself physically, as in a dancer who is afraid to go on stage developing paralysis [source: Mayo Clinic].

But there is also another way of looking at psychosomatic conditions that don't infer a type of mental illness. It is becoming widely accepted in medicine that the mind has a large influence on the health of an individual.

In this sense, psychosomatic conditions can be as simple as stress causing a headache or as complex as an introverted personality contributing to the development of cancer. Voluminous studies have shown a correlation between illness and emotion. One study found that people diagnosed with panic disorder display a higher likelihood for abnormal electrical activity in their heart function. Others have shown that people who suffer from depression following major surgery are more likely to die than those with a positive attitude following the same types of surgery.

But as the research on the correlation between emotional states and physical illness accumulates, the actual links are still being investigated. Like Couvade syndrome, it's evident: The mind affects the body. But science has never been a discipline to be satisfied with mere correlation.

Endocrinology may be the best contender in providing the link between body and mind. Scientists have known for a long time that hormones play a role in both mood and physiology. For example, emotional distress has been shown to have a correlation to the release of the hormone 17-OHCS by the adrenal gland. The possible connection here may be that emotional stress, like anxiety, acts on the central nervous system -- which can influence the functioning of the endocrine system.

As science delves more deeply into the influence of emotion over physiology, the connection between mind and body is becoming increasingly apparent. This connection seems to go both ways: Like the effect emotion can have on glands, other studies have found that electrolytes -- elements such as potassium that create the electrical impulses need for body function -- are correlated to mental illnesses, like depression. Perhaps eventually research like this will yield an explanation for sympathetic pregnancy.

For more information on pregnancy and the mind, visit the next page.