Foxglove, scientifically known as Digitalis, is a beautiful flowering plant that has a rich history in herbal medicine. It is native to Europe and Asia and is beloved for its elegant, tubular blossoms that adorn tall spikes in various shades of pink, purple, and white. While foxglove is a popular garden favorite, it contains potent compounds, including digoxin, a cardiac glycoside that has a profound effect on the heart.
Foxgloves have been associated with various myths and sayings, including claims that the flower can induce a heart attack. But is this true? Here’s what experts say.
“Foxgloves contain extremely potent compounds called cardiac glycosides – ‘cardiac’ for their function on the heart muscle and ‘glycosides’ to indicate that these compounds have sugar molecules to help the body absorb them,” explained Dr. Zhen Wang.
A healthy heart functions by pumping blood throughout the body through thousands of cardiac cells that contract to facilitate the process. The membranes of these cells contain various ion channels and transporters, allowing charged particles like sodium, potassium, and chloride to move. The movement of these ions generates electrical currents, and the sodium-potassium pump maintains the electrical balance.
“All foxglove species produce some amount of these cardiac glycosides, such as digoxin, and they bind very, very tightly to the sodium-potassium pump, inhibiting it so the transporter cannot pump those ions anymore,” said Dr. Zheng Wang.
Inhibiting the sodium-potassium pump disrupts the heart’s natural rhythm, leading to a dangerous type of arrhythmia known as ventricular fibrillation, which can result in sudden cardiac arrest and even death.
However, digoxin, one of the cardiac glycosides found in foxglove, is also known for its medicinal use. “Digoxin is clinically prescribed for heart failure when other drugs have failed,” Dr. Wang explained.
It’s essential to note that if someone accidentally ingests any part of the foxglove plant, they should seek immediate medical attention, as the effects of cardiac glycosides can be life-threatening. While foxglove’s beauty is captivating, its potent compounds make it a plant that should be admired from a distance rather than consumed.