Effects on humans and other mammals
methylergometrine maleate (Methergin)
Main article: Ergotism
The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloidergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected viaamide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergolinegroup that are biosynthesizedby the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range ofbiological activities including effects on circulation andneurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids are classified as:
Ergotism is the name for sometimes severe pathological syndromes affecting humans or other animals that have ingested plant material containing ergot alkaloid, such as ergot-contaminated grains. TheHospital Brothers of St. Anthony, an order of monks established in 1095, specialized in treating ergotism victims with balms containing tranquilizing and circulation-stimulating plant extracts. The common name for ergotism is “St. Anthony’s Fire”, in reference to this order of monks and the severe burning sensations in the limbs which was one of the symptoms.These are caused by effects of ergot alkaloids on thevascular system due tovasoconstriction, sometimes leading to gangrene and loss of limbs due to severely restricted blood circulation.
The neurotropic activities of the ergot alkaloids may also cause hallucinations and attendant irrational behaviour, convulsions, and even death. Other symptoms include strong uterinecontractions, nausea,seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Since the Middle Ages, controlled doses of ergot were used to induceabortions and to stop maternal bleeding after childbirth. Ergot extract has been used inpharmaceutical preparations, including ergot alkaloids in products such as Cafergot(containing caffeine andergotamine or ergoline) to treat migraine headaches, andergometrine, used to induce uterine contractions and to control bleeding after childbirth.
In addition to ergot alkaloids,Claviceps paspali also produces tremorgens(paspalitrem) causing “paspalum staggers” in cattle. The fungi of the generaPenicillium and Aspergillusalso produce ergot alkaloids, notably some isolates of the human pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus, and have been isolated from plants in the family Convolvulaceae, of which morning glory is best known.
The January 4, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes a paper that documents a British study of more than 11,000 Parkinson’s Disease patients. The study found that two ergot-derived drugs, pergolide andcabergoline, commonly used to treat Parkinson’s Disease may increase the risk of leaky heart valves by up to 700%.
Human poisoning due to the consumption of rye bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle Ages. The epidemic was known as Saint Anthony’s fire, or ignis sacer, and some historical events, such as the Great Fearin France during theRevolution have been linked to ergot poisoning. Linnda R. Caporael posited in 1976 that the hysterical symptoms of young women that had spurred the Salem witch-trialshad been the result of consuming ergot-tainted rye. However, Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, after a review of the historical and medical evidence, later disputed her conclusions.Other authors have likewise cast doubt on ergotism as the cause of the Salem witch trials.
Midwives and doctors have used extracts from ergots to hasten childbirth or to induce abortions for centuries.Previous research has shown that the prophylactic use of uterotonic agents in the third stage of labour reduces both postpartum blood loss and postpartum haemorrhage.In 1808 John Stearns of upper New York State learned from an immigrant German midwife of a new means to effect the mechanics of birth. This was ergot, a powerful natural drug that stimulates uterine muscles when given orally. It causes unremitting contractions. Stearns stressed its value in saving doctors time and relieving women of the agony of long labor. However, until anesthesia became available, there was no antidote or way of controlling the effects of ergot. So if the fetus did not move as expected, the drug could cause the uterus to mold itself around the child, rupturing the uterus and killing the child. Eventually, doctors determined that the use of ergot in childbirth without an antidote was too dangerous. They ultimately restricted its use to expelling the placenta or stopping hemorrhage.
In the 1930s, abortifacients drugs were marketed to women by various companies under various names such as Molex Pills and Cote Pills. Since birth control devices and abortifacients were illegal to market and sell at the time, they were offered to women who were “delayed”. The recommended dosage was seven grains of ergotin a day. According to the FTC these pills contained ergotin, aloes, Black Hellebore, and other substances. The efficacy and safety of these pills are unknown. The FTC deemed them unsafe and ineffective and demanded that they cease and desist selling the product.
British author John Grigsbycontends that the presence of ergot in the stomachs of some of the so-called ‘bog-bodies’ (Iron Age human remains from peat bogs N E Europe such as Tollund Man) is indicative of use of ergot in ritual drinks in a prehistoric fertility cult akin to theEleusinian Mysteries cult of ancient Greece. In his bookBeowulf and Grendel, he argues that the Anglo-Saxon poemBeowulf is based on a memory of the quelling of this fertility cult by followers of Odin. He writes that Beowulf, which he translates as barley-wolf, suggests a connection to ergot which in German was known as the ‘tooth of the wolf’. Beowulf is alternatively theorized to be translated at ‘bee-wolf’, a kenning for ‘bear’, to reference his berserker(bear shirt) state.
Kykeon, the beverage consumed by participants in the ancient Greek cult ofEleusinian Mysteries, might have been based on hallucinogens from ergot,and lysergic acid diethylamide(LSD) is a potent hallucinogen, which was first synthesized from ergot alkaloids by the Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, in 1938.