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Digitalis

Digitalis

Doctors often treat illnesses with drugs derived (obtained) from special substances found in plants. One of the most important of these drugs is digitalis, which is used to treat congestive heart failure. This heart condition occurs when the heart becomes enlarged and loses some of its effectiveness in pumping blood. Swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid in the arms and legs or hands and feet may be a sign of congestive heart failure. As long ago as the thirteenth century, people who used "folk" remedies began to notice that a plant commonly known as foxglove produced a medicine that could be used to treat some types of this swelling, called "dropsy." The medical term for swelling caused by a buildup of fluid is edema. Digitalis is one of the most useful drugs in treating heart disease. It works by making the heart's contractions stronger without causing it to beat faster and become overworked. This results in a slower, more effective heartbeat with longer periods of rest for the heart in between.

Foxglove

Common foxglove is grown in gardens as a popular flower and also grows wild along roadsides and in meadows or logged areas, mainly in the western United States. The botanical name for common foxglove is Digitalis purpurea. Foxglove was brought to the United States by European migrants centuries ago. The plant has tube-shaped, spotted, purple flowers and grows to about five feet tall, with many large, thick, hairy leaves at the base of a tall stem. The variety grown in gardens varies in color from white to a deep rose.

Digitalis is one of the most well known medicines derived from a plant. Today scientists are searching in jungles and tropical rain forests for other plants that may contain substances to cure cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, and other serious diseases. Native medicine healers have used plants to treat illnesses among their people for thousands of years, and scientists today are working with modern-day medicine men in hopes of finding new wonder drugs among the earth's fast-disappearing natural resources.

The Pharmacy in the Garden

Other drugs used today that come from plants include tubocurarine, a surgical anesthetic derived from the curare vine; ephedrine, the active ingredient in decongestants, found in the stem of a Chinese shrub called mahuang; the opium poppy, which contains more than 20 alkaloids, of which morphine, codeine, and heroin are the most well known; aspirin, a painkiller derived from willow tree bark; reserpine, an anti-hypertensive that comes from the snakeroot plant; atropine, an intestinal (smooth muscle) antispasmodic and pupil dilator found in belladonna (deadly nightshade); and physostigmine, a glaucoma treatment and atropine poisoning antidote (remedy) derived from the Calabar bean.

Withering's Studies

In 1775 an English doctor named William Withering (1741-1799) began studying the foxglove plant. He learned that an effective medicine for treating heart ailments could be made from drying leaves picked just before the plant blossomed and crushing them into a powder. Withering also discovered that this medicine, digitalisone of a number of substances called found in the plantcould be poisonous if the patient was given too much. Withering was aware that digitalis was effective only in certain forms of dropsy (edema), but apparently did not associate this with the cardiac actions of the drug. Withering published his findings about digitalis in 1785, but in spite of his warnings about proper dosage, many doctors prescribed the medicine in doses that were too large and for sicknesses it could not cure.

The active principles of digitalis were not known to researchers until the mid-1800s, when two French scientists, Homolle Ouevenne and Theodore Ouevenne, found the substance digitalin in the foxglove plant. In 1875 Oscar Schmiedeberg (1838-1921) identified the potent chemical digitoxin in the plant, and in 1930 the English chemist Sydney Smith obtained the medicine used today, digoxin, from the wooly foxglove plant, Digitalis lanata.

Today doctors know that if too much digitalis enters the circulatory system the patient may experience nausea, vomiting, trouble with vision (seeing too much yellow or green), and a very slow and irregular heartbeat. A larger amount of digitalis can result in convulsions (severe seizures) and death. Even grazing animals that eat too much of the foxglove plant can become poisoned by its glycosides.

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digitalis

digitalis (dĬj´Ĭtăl´Ĭs), any of several chemically similar drugs used primarily to increase the force and rate of heart contractions, especially in damaged heart muscle. The effects of the drug were known as early as 1500 BC; it was later obtained from the foxglove plant, Digitalis purpurea, and from fuchsia (see figwort). It was used in the 19th cent. to treat dropsy (edema). Digitalislike substances are found in a wide variety of plants and animals, including the poisons of some toad species. Foxglove remains the main source for the drug used medically today.

Chemically, digitalis is composed of a sugar (glycoside), a steroid, and a cyclic ester known as a lactone; the pharmacological activity varies according to differences, occurring naturally or introduced synthetically, in the steroid or sugar portions. Common preparations include digitalis, digitoxin, and digoxin, all from foxglove, and ouabain from Strophanthus gratus, the ouabaio tree; these vary both in solubility and in rapidity and duration of effect.

Digitalis slows the pulse and slows the conduction of nerve impulses in the heart. By increasing the amount of calcium available to the heart muscle, it improves the force of each heartbeat and increases the amount of blood pumped. It is used in the treatment of congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias. The mechanism by which it acts to enhance heart muscle contraction is not definitely known. Toxic effects include nausea, vomiting, and visual disturbances.

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digitalis

digitalis A preparation of the dried leaves or seeds of the foxglove (Digitalis), used historically as a heart stimulant. Modern clinically prescribed drugs derived from digitalis include digoxin and digitoxin, both of which belong to a class of drugs known as the cardiac glycosides. They are used to treat heart failure and some forms of arrhythmia because of their ability to increase the force of contraction of the heart muscle. Their toxic effects arise from their capacity to disturb the normal rhythm of the heart.

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Digitalis

Digitalis (foxgloves; family Scrophulariaceae) A genus of tall herbs that have alternate leaves and attractive, drooping, 2-lipped, bell-like flowers. They are cultivated for their flowers and for the alkaloid digitalis, used for heart stimulation. There are about 20 species, found in Europe and Central Asia.

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digitalis

digitalis plant of the foxglove family XVII; drug prepared from this XVIII. — modL., sb. use of L. digitālis pert. to the finger, after the G. name of the foxglove, fingerhut ‘finger-hat’, thimble.

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digitalis

dig·i·tal·is / ˌdijiˈtalis/ • n. a drug prepared from the dried leaves of foxglove and containing substances (notably digoxin and digitoxin) that stimulate the heart muscle.

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digitalis

digitalis (dij-i-tay-lis) n. an extract from the dried leaves of foxgloves (Digitalis species), which contains various substances, including digitoxin and digoxin, that stimulate heart muscle.

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digitalis

digitalis Drug obtained from the leaves of the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), used to treat heart disease. It increases heart contractions and slows the heartbeat.

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digitalis

digitalis An alkaloid that is used for heart stimulation; it is derived from fox-gloves (Digitalis). See CARDIAC GLYCOSIDE.

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digitalis

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