Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number: 12126-57-7
Formal Names: Claviceps purpurea
Informal Names: Cockspur Rye, Hornseed, Mother of Rye, Muttercorn, Smut Rye, Spur Kernels, Spurred Rye
Federal Schedule Listing: Unlisted
USA Availability: Nonprescription natural product
Pregnancy Category: None
The history of ergot is composed of madness and disfiguring disease but might still be an obscure footnote to medicine except for the discovery of a related chemical in the 1930s called LSD. That link brought modern attention to a normally inconspicuous natural product. Ergot comes from a rather fishysmelling fungus growing on improperly stored grain (typically rye). In cool and damp conditions ergot is also found on various grains and grasses in the field. This happens around the world; in the 1990s Iowa’s barley crop suffered infection. Ergot chemicals are also found in morning glory seeds. Although ergot is typically an unwanted contamination in grain, sometimes the fungus is deliberately cultivated to be harvested for pharmaceutical purposes.
Ergot is a traditional treatment to reduce menstrual blood flow and bleeding after childbirth. The substance promotes contractions of the uterus, and the raw product has been used for centuries as an aid to birthing. Unskilled administration, however, can rupture the uterus. In more recent times ergonovine (CAS RN 129-51-1) has been isolated from ergot as the active chemical
for promoting childbearing. Chemicals from ergot can induce abortions in cows and sheep, but reports conflict on whether ergot has this effect on humans.
One authority notes that such attempted use can kill the pregnant woman. Ergot preparations are still used as a fallback if no other drug provides sufficient aid in childbirth, but they are generally avoided in modern obstetrics.
Ergotamine, a substance derived from ergot, is used to treat migraine headache. Raw ergot is not used for that purpose because the unprocessed natural product would have too many unwanted effects, making the headache cure worse than the disease. Ergot chemicals have also been used to treat menopause and for experimental treatment of patients suffering from Parkinson’s
disease and from mental deterioration associated with old age, including Alzheimer’s
disease. After volunteers took an ergot drug called co-dergocrine they were stimulated and did better than normal on tests of thinking, decisions, and physical movement. That finding is not surprising, given that LSD is related to ergot and can act as a powerful stimulant.
Entire communities have been devastated when residents ate food contaminated with ergot. Such outbreaks of ergotism come in two varieties, convulsive and gangrenous. Both can occur simultaneously. The gangrenous kind is characterized by weeks of severe burning pain in appendages, sometimes called St. Anthony’s Fire or Holy Fire. The convulsive kind can
involve dizziness, ringing in the ears, tingling fingers, hallucinations, vomiting, convulsions, delirium, and a sensation that vermin are crawling underneath the skin. Ergotism incidents occurred in Ethiopia in the 1970s, in India during the 1950s, in Russia during the 1920s, and in the United States during the 1800s. Some authorities argue that convulsions and hallucinations caused by ergot were responsible for the Salem witchcraft accusations in colonial America during the 1600s. Such instances are good examples of why herbal medicine authorities recommend avoiding the natural product.
Ergot constricts blood vessels in fingers and toes, enough that repeated use can cause gangrene. Extreme human cases can kill substantial portions of entire limbs; the same result was seen in cows that grazed in an ergotcontaminated pasture and in cattle that ate contaminated feed. Less serious unwanted effects can include nausea, vomiting, chest pain, itching, weak legs, and numb fingers. Extended dosage can cause difficulty in movement, impair vision by damaging blood vessels in the eye, and produce inability to use words.
Ergotamine can cause heart trouble and gangrenous ergotism. Rat tests show that a wide variety of health problems are caused by chronic consumption of ergocryptine, an ergot chemical.
Not enough scientific information to report about tolerance, dependence, withdrawal, or addiction. Deliberate consumption of the natural product is probably rare.
Ergot problems can be exacerbated by caffeine, by tobacco cigarettes, by the HIV/AIDS drug ritonavir, and possibly by the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac). A case report relates instances of bad reactions occurring when people used ergot products along with “beta blockers,” a type
of drug that is typically prescribed for heart problems.
In 1990 a World Health Organization study reported that no information was available on ergot’s potential for causing cancer. Research published in 1976, however, said that ergotamine and two other ergot chemicals did not cause cell mutations in mice and hamsters (mutations can indicate
potential for cancer).
Using ergot during pregnancy and nursing is considered hazardous. Ergot chemicals consumed by a pregnant cow can pass into the fetus and also appear in the cow’s milk. In pigs ergot can interfere with reproduction and milk supply. Ergotamine is known to cause human fetal stress, is
known to cause birth defects in animals, and is suspected of causing birth defects in humans. Pregnant women who took drugs in unsuccessful suicide attempts were the subjects of a study that tentatively concluded that ergotamine did not cause congenital malformations, but the researchers felt they needed more data to be sure. Other investigators have noted reports of ergotamine birth defects consistent with reduced blood flow (a known action of ergot preparations), but those reports have not been scientifically confirmed.
Clinical observations have noted that when nursing mothers use ergotamine in the first week after birth, their infants show normal milk consumption and normal weight gain during that week. Ergot passes into human milk, however, and instances have been noted of infants poisoned from ergot in the milk.
Bromocriptine and cabergoline, drugs related to ergot, have been used in circumstances when milk production needs to be suppressed in women who have recently given birth. Cabergoline has been used experimentally to treat pituitary cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and in certain circumstances the drug should increase female fertility, but scientists are unsure about its potential for causing birth defects. Cabergoline experiments with rabbits and mice did not produce malformations. A study of pregnant women who used cabergoline found several instances of birth defects, but no more than would be expected if the drug had not been used.
Congenital malformations among offspring were noted in another set of pregnant women who used the drug, but researchers reported no conclusion on the drug’s role.
Additional scientific information may be found in:
Hofmann, A. “Historical View on Ergot Alkaloids.” Pharmacology 16 (1978, Suppl. 1): 1–11.
Merhoff, G.C., and J.M. Porter. “Ergot Intoxication: Historical Review and Description
of Unusual Clinical Manifestations.” Annals of Surgery 180 (1974): 773–79.
Moir, J.C. “Ergot: From ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’ to the Isolation of Its Active Principle,
Ergometrine (Ergonovine).” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 120
Van Dongen, P., and A. De Groot. “History of Ergot Alkaloids from Ergotism to Ergometrine.”
European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 60 (1995): 109–16.
Woolf, A. “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials.” Journal of Toxicology.
Clinical Toxicology 38 (2000): 457–60.