Ergot and its disease ergotism have been a worldwide plague to humans ever since humans have started to harvest and cultivate grains in all their forms. Although outbreaks of ergotism still occur periodically they have all but become nonexistent in the modern era. Ergot has had beneficial effects as well. Ergot has produced medicines, which are vital to the medicine world. Ergot has produced in the world's eyes an ugly stepsister to its medicines: LSD. D-lysergic acid diethylamide known to the world as LSD is a derivative of ergot. Ergot has had a far and wide-ranging impact on man unrealized by most people.
Ergot fungi are molds that infect rye and other cereals and wild grasses (Microsoft Encarta 1999). The scientific name of the most prevalent form of ergot is Claviceps Purpurea. When wind-tossed spores of ergot land on a healthy stigma of grains or grasses they enter, as does pollen, into the ovary and begin to form a fine mycelial network (Salvador and Kolla 1). The mycelia network commonly called honeydew begins forming asexually produced spores, which are called conidiospores (Walker 546). The honeydew is a sugary-like thing which attract insects who feed on the sugary substance and they in turn carry spores which get stuck to their legs to healthy plants and in turn infect those plants (Salvador and Kolla 1). The mycelial network deep inside the ovary eventually kills the ovary and forms a dense hard structure called a sclerotium. The honeydew is not responsible for the production of the toxic chemicals, which in their own turn causes the disease known as ergotism.
Ergotism is a complex disease that results from the ingestion of grains and cereals infected with ergot by humans and domestic animals (Salvador and Kolla 1). This disease was common among people who ate bread made from rye grain that contained ergot sclerotia (Ammirati 349). During the Middle Ages ergotism was commonly referred to as St. Anthony's Fire. People during this time used to make pilgrimages to Egypt where the shrine of St. Anthony was located to get healed by it. More often than not people healed due to the fact that during the trek they would stop eating the ergot infested bread, which made them sick in the first place. Animal grazing on ergot-infested fields may develop lameness, muscle trembling, and inflammation of the digestive tract (Walker 546). There are two different types of ergotism caused by the ergot fungi in grains and grasses. The two different types of ergotism are gangrenous ergotism and convulsive ergotism. In gangrenous ergotism, the symptoms include muscle pain, numbness of the feet and legs, headache, nauseam vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness (Walker 546). Quite often bodily extremities turn black, dry, and become mummified, making it possible for infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints (Salvador and Kolla 1). If large quantities are ingested, poisoning is acute and the victim may die. In convulsive ergotism, people experience epileptic form seizures, ravenous hunger, violent retching, tongue biting, or unusual breathing patterns (Salvador and Kolla 1). With this type of ergotism body parts become grossly deformed, due to the disease. This type of ergotism incurs long recovery periods and permanent nerve damage. There are bad side affects due to the ingesting of ergot but several useful medicines are derived from it.
Ergot may be bad but several medical uses come out of it. Accounts as far back as 1582, from European and Chinese midwives tell of them using ergot for stopping post childbirth bleeding (Salvador and Kolla 2). Ergot has also been used to induce abortions. Two of the alkaloids of ergot have been found to have remarkable properties to reduce the pain of migraine headaches, their names are ergotamine and ergotoxine. Ergotamine to a greater extent than ergotoxine has helped migraine sufferers. Both of these alkaloids cause gangrene with chronic use, so therefore they must therefore be used only under strict medical supervision (Salvador and Kolla 2). The way these two medicines work is they constrict blood vessels and make smooth muscles contract (Walker 546). There is a third alkaloid that is useful to the medicinal world and that is ergonovine. Ergonovine is mostly used inducing uterine contractions to eject the