Can foxgloves really give you a heart attack?

Foxgloves contain digoxin, a drug used to treat cardiac arrhythmia and heart failure that can also be toxic. But can ingesting it cause a heart attack?

Source: Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

The bell-shaped purple foxglove flowers are instantly recognizable, but this beautiful European wildflower is imbued with supernatural mystery. Also known as witch’s gloves or dead man’s bell, they have been used as both folk medicine and poison for centuries due to their powerful effects on the human heart.
In fact, there’s an old English saying that “Fox gloves can raise the dead and kill the living.” But how true is this?

Can Foxgloves Really Cause Heart Attacks?
To go deeper into this issue, we must first understand how a healthy heart works. The heart itself contains thousands of cardiac cells that contract over time to pump blood throughout the body. Tiny electrical signals regulate this pumping activity, and each cell participates in maintaining this electrical activity. Hugues Abriel, an ion channel researcher at the University of Bern, explains: “Heart cell membranes have many different ion channels and transporters that allow charged particles such as sodium, potassium and chloride to pass through the membrane in a controlled manner. control”. Switzerland, told Live Science. “The movement of these ions creates an electric current and a potential difference across the membrane, and that’s where the current is created.”
The sodium-potassium pump is particularly important in regulating this electrical balance. This membrane transporter uses energy to push sodium ions out of the cell while pumping potassium ions into the cell. Overall, this means that the inside of each heart cell is negatively charged compared to the outside, and maintaining this gradient is essential for the heart to function properly.

So what do foxgloves have to do with any of this?

Zhen Wang, a cardiologist, said: “Fox gloves contain extremely potent compounds called cardiac glycosides – ‘cardiac’ for their function on the heart muscle and ‘glycoside’ to indicate that These compounds have sugar molecules attached to their chemical structure to help the body absorb them.” synthesis expert. a biologist specializing in natural plant products at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told Live Science. “All foxgloves produce some of these cardiac glycosides, like digoxin, and they bind very tightly to the sodium-potassium pump, inhibiting it so that the transporter can no longer pump these ions.”
Disabling this pump causes a series of chemical problems in heart cells that combine to cause the heart to suddenly beat much harder and faster.
“There are interactions between different types of membrane transporters, so inhibiting one type means the other type won’t work as well,” Abriel explains. “Pressing the sodium-potassium pump has the effect of increasing calcium concentrations inside heart cells. This increase in calcium levels acts as a trigger, causing electrical disturbances and causing heart cells to contract harder and faster.”
Disruption of the heart’s natural rhythm, a dangerous type of arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation, can lead to sudden cardiac arrest or even death. “When the heart chambers don’t contract regularly, they can’t pump blood anymore, and the overall effect is that the heart no longer beats,” Abriel said.
Despite its dangerous and toxic effects, digoxin is also a valuable cardiovascular drug. “Digoxin is clinically prescribed for heart failure when other medications have not worked,” Wang said. “Heart failure occurs when a patient’s heart is so weak that it doesn’t pump enough so you want to increase the heart’s pumping strength. Although digoxin has serious side effects in overdose, this is a special case where the benefits of the superior poison.” side effects. Risky and can save lives.

So what does all of this mean for foxgloves?

While digoxin is undoubtedly a powerful and dangerous compound, accidental poisonings with wild foxgloves are extremely rare, and the common purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) produces relatively small amounts of the toxin.

Nonetheless, if someone accidentally ingests any part of the plant, they should go to the emergency room (or the vet, in the case of a pet) as a precaution, Wang advised. “The cardiac glycosides are very potent and act very fast,” she said. “At the hospital, they’ll be able to treat you and help your body clear out that toxin.”

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.

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