Can morning sickness be a male affliction too?

It seems as though the science might just confirm this old wives' tale, says Simon Usborne
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It showed many of the signs of a "real-life" health story of dubious origin splashed across a front page as light relief during a week of rather heavy news. But it turns out there is science behind the "DAD-TO-BE SIGNED OFF WITH MORNING SICKNESS" who found himself on the cover of The Sun yesterday under the strapline "phantom pregnancy scandal".

While there is no real scandal, Harry Ashby is apparently showing some of the symptoms of his partner's pregnancy. "We have the same issues with weight gain and after she rubs oil to stop stretch marks on her belly she does the same for me," he told the newspaper.

The security guard, 29, who is also, according to Google, an aspiring singer and dancer with an agent called Alley Einstein, says that he has "gained a belly and man boobs and battled exhaustion, back pain and food cravings" since his girlfriend, Charlotte, 19, got pregnant.

Causes of his weight gain might be found in the sorts of food he says that he now craves: Chinese takeaways, orange Lucozade and salt-and-vinegar crisps. But Ashby has also been throwing up. "We'd lie on the sofa and moan at the same time about our aches and pains," Charlotte said. "My breasts were getting bigger and so were his. After a while, he started complaining of pains over his chest; it started freaking me out."

The couple, whose baby is due in January, eventually visited a GP, who they say diagnosed Ashby with Couvade syndrome, a rare, not entirely understood but apparently real condition. In 2007, researchers at St George's Hospital in south London monitored 282 dads-to-be whose partners attended the hospital. Eleven of the men reported similar symptoms to Ashby's, as well as toothache, mood swings and fainting. A separate Italian study suggested almost two-thirds of men experience some symptoms.

One man in the London study even claimed that he had stomach pains during labour that were worse than his partner's. "Her contractions were fairly strong, but she couldn't push and as that was happening, my stomach pain was building up and up and getting worse and worse," he said. Her response to his claim was not recorded.

Dr Arthur Brennan, a senior lecturer in psychology at Kingston University in London, led the research. Early medical opinion suggested there was no physical reason for these psychosomatic symptoms, which were thought to be triggered by shared anxiety about pregnancy (this would make sense in Ashby's case – Charlotte had previously miscarried). Phantom causes of apparently real symptoms have also been observed in amputees, some of whom can feel "synaesthetic" or "sympathy" pain when they see other people experience pain or who are exposed to potential sources of pain.

But Dr Brennan suspected there was more to Couvade syndrome (from the French couver, meaning "to brood" or "to hatch") and in 2010 he conducted a new experiment to determine the role in fathers of prolactin, a hormone linked to the production of milk in mothers. "Prolactin lowers levels of testosterone, bringing out men's softer, emotional side, and may account for behaviour such as with dads who cry when their child is born," he said. "It seems that fathers may be just as much a victim of their hormones as their pregnant partners."

He monitored the prolactin levels of a man who had suffered from Couvade syndrome while he cradled his newborn baby. They rose by 20 per cent in 15 minutes. "I believe that men who experience pregnancy symptoms may be undergoing normal hormonal changes that help them prepare for fatherhood," the lecturer added, while conceding that more needs to be done to determine the precise roles of various hormones in fathers, also including oestrogen and the stress hormone cortisol.

Ashby was relieved to know he wasn't alone. "Now I know I'm having a sympathetic pregnancy, I don't care. It's amazing to be going through it with her," he said. Charlotte, a hairdresser from Birmingham, was less impressed. "I do get a bit tired of having to look after Harry when he should be looking after me," she said. "It proves women are tougher than blokes when it comes to pregnancy."