Scientific Name(s): Digitalis lanata Ehrh, Digitalis purpurea L.
Common Name(s): Dead man's bells, Digitalis, Fairy cap, Fairy finger, Foxglove, Lady's thimble, Lion's mouth, Purple foxglove, Scotch mercury, Throatwort, Witch's bells, Woolly foxglove
Digitalis is typically a biennial plant but may be annual or perennial depending on the species. It is characterized by a thick, cylindrical, downy stem that reaches a height of up to 2 m. Leaves form a thick rosette during the first year of growth. The leaves, which are woolly, veined, and covered with white hairs on the underside, have a very bitter taste. Flowers grow in the first or second year, depending on the species, and are tubular and bell-shaped, growing to 8 cm in length. Many colors of flowers have been bred from digitalis, and they are rarely white. Digitalis is native to the British Isles, western Europe, and parts of Africa, but is found today as an ornamental plant throughout the world. Related species that have found some use in traditional medicine include Digitalis lutea (straw foxglove), Digitalis grandiflora and Digitalis ambigua (yellow foxglove), and Digitalis ferriginea (rusty foxglove).Morton 1997, USDA 2010, Warren 2005
Digitalis was one of the many herbal remedies used by the ancient Romans. Although its use for the treatment of heart failure has been traced back to 10th century Europe, digitalis was not widely used for this indication until its scientific investigation by British physician William Withering in the late 1700s. For most of the 1800s, digitalis was used to treat a wide variety of diseases and disorders. In 1875, German chemist Oswald Schmiedeberg first isolated pure digitoxin from digitalis, leading others to extract and identify other glycosides from various species of digitalis. In 1957, digoxin was isolated from D. lanata and is now a major cardiac glycoside marketed in tablet form. Digitalis was admitted into the first edition of the Pharmacopeia of the United States (1820) and is currently recognized by all major pharmacopeias. In South America, preparations of the powdered leaves are used to relieve asthma, as sedatives, and as diuretic/cardiotonics. In India, an ointment containing digitalis glycosides is used to treat wounds and burns.Belcastro 2002, Feussner 2010, Morton 1997
Ornamental strains of D. purpurea typically have low concentrations of active compounds. Leaves of wild varieties that have been used for medicinal purposes contain at least 30 different glycosides in total quantities ranging from 0.1% to 0.6%; these consist primarily of purpurea glycoside A (yielding digitoxin) and glycoside B, the precursor of gitoxin. Upon hydrolysis, digitoxin and gitoxin lose sugar moieties, producing their respective aglycones, digitoxigenin and gitoxigenin. Biosynthetic pathways in the production of cardenolides are reliant on the enzymes of malonyltransferase and progesterone 5 beta-reductase.
The main glycosides of D. lanata are the lanatosides, designated A through E. Removal of acetate groups and sugars results in formation of digitoxin, gitoxin, digoxin, digitalin, and gitaloxin. D. lanata is not typically used in powder form in the United States, but serves as a major source of lanatoside C and digoxin (300 times more potent than the powder prepared from D. purpurea). Isolated digitoxin is 1,000 times more potent than whole powdered leaves and is completely and rapidly absorbed from the GI tract.
The seeds also contain digitalis glycosides, while steroidal saponins, flavones, the flavonoid chrysoeriol, anthraquinones, and organic acids have been identified in the leaves. High performance liquid chromatography and mass spectroscopy have been used to identify and quantify glycoside composition.Choi 2005, Gavidia 2007, Kite 2007, Kuate 2008, Morton 1977, Trease 1989, Usai 2007, Warren 2005
Uses and Pharmacology
Cardiac glycosides possess positive inotropic effects due to inhibition of sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase, which allows calcium to accumulate in myocytes leading to enhanced cardiac contractility. These drugs also possess some antiarrhythmic activity, but will induce arrhythmias at higher dose levels.Hauptman 1999, Keenan 2005, Kuate 2008
Digitalis glycosides have been used clinically for the treatment of heart failure for more than 200 years and remain the source of commercial digoxin preparations; however, a defined place in therapy remains under debate. Reviews of the large, multicenter Digitalis Investigation Group trial and other clinical trials have found no clear effect of digitalis on mortality in heart failure. Some effect has been demonstrated for secondary outcomes of decreased hospitalizations and clinical (symptomatic) deterioration.Feussner 2010, Hood 2004 For further information, consult standard pharmacology references.
In vitro experiments and screening studies have shown cytotoxic properties of glycosides and flavonoids from D. purpurea and D. lantana. Activity against human cancer cell lines, including solid tumor lines, has been demonstrated. Mechanisms include direct cytotoxicity resulting in apoptosis, inhibition of aflatoxin-induced cytotoxicity, inhibition of induction of nitric oxide synthase, and increases in glutathione S-tranferase.Choi 2005, Johansson 2001, Lee 2006, Lindholm 2002, López-Lázaro 2003
A study in hyperglycemic and dyslipidemic rats demonstrated enhanced glucose tolerance 2 hours after the rats were given a single dose of the saponin digitonin. Positive effects on the lipid profile were also observed.Ebaid 2006
Digitalis leaf has a narrow therapeutic index, requiring close medical supervision for safe use. Traditional dosage starts at 1.5 g of leaf divided into 2 daily doses. Purified digoxin is typically used at daily doses of 0.125 to 0.25 mg.Ebaid 2006, Hood 2004
Pregnancy / Lactation
Documented adverse cardiac reactions. Avoid use.22
There are numerous interactions with digoxin and digitalis glycosides, ranging from relatively minor (eg, cimetidine, triamterene) to life threatening. Many of the life threatening interactions occur as a result of elevated digoxin serum levels (eg, amiodarone, cyclosporine, macrolide and tetracycline antibiotics, propafenone, quinidine, verapamil) or electrolyte disturbances (eg, diuretics).Tatro 2004 For more comprehensive information on digitalis drug interactions, refer to standard drug interaction texts.
Adverse reactions are generally related to toxicity.
All parts of the plant are toxic. Animal toxicity occurs during grazing. Children have become ill by sucking the flowers or ingesting seeds or parts of the leaves. Deaths have been reported among people who drank tea made from digitalis mistakenly identified as comfrey, although the bitter taste often deters ingestion, and its emetic properties can induce vomiting, thereby limiting systemic absorption. Digitalis poisoning is also associated with intentional ingestion with suicidal intent.Jowett 2002, Lacassie 2000, Lin 2010
Digitalis glycosides accumulate and are excreted slowly; therefore, intoxications during therapy are common. The incidence of digitalis toxicity has been estimated to range from 5% to 23%. More stringent dosing guidelines and monitoring techniques have dramatically reduced the incidence of therapeutic overdose.
Signs of plant or purified drug poisoning include blurred vision, contracted pupils, dizziness, excessive urination, fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, strong but slowed pulse, tremors, and vomiting; in severe cases, stupor, confusion, convulsions, and death can occur. Cardiac signs include atrial arrhythmias and atrioventricular block. Chronic digitalis intoxication is characterized by visual halos, yellow-green vision, and GI upset.Dick 1991, Hauptman 1999, Jowett 2002, Morton 1977
In mild cases of toxicity (atrial fibrillation with a slow ventricular response or occasional ectopic beats), temporary withdrawal of the drug and electrocardiogram monitoring is sufficient.Trease 1989 Gastric lavage or emesis together with supportive measures, such as electrolyte replacements, antiarrhythmics (eg, lidocaine, phenytoin), and atropine, have been used to manage acute poisonings. Digoxin-specific Fab antibody fragments may be used in managing acute intoxications caused by digitalis and related cardioactive glycosides; however, their efficacy remains unproven by controlled clinical trials.Hauptman 1999, Lacassie 2000, Roberts 2006, Wickersham 2004
In an analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, long-term use (more than 4 years) of digitalis (as digoxin) has been linked to an increased risk of invasive breast cancer, although conclusive evidence of causality is lacking.Ahern 2017, Xu 2013
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