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Foxglove Or Digitalis Foxglove As An Efficient Remedy In Heart Conditions

( Originally Published 1921 )

FOXGLOVE is a familiar flower to those who have gardens, and when it is seen growing, one hardly realizes how much it has influenced human life and history. Its use was discovered by an Englishman named Withering about 1785 because it had the reputation of relieving dropsy in people who had rapid and irregular hearts. Since that time, coming to be known as digitalis, it has held its place as one of the most valuable remedies that come from the vegetable kingdom, and the art of using it has been steadily improved. I could point out a number of people who are alive and enjoying a fair degree of health whose lives were saved by the use of this remedy. I know that such statements are made about so many things that we become skeptical and feel that perhaps some other factor was involved. However, picture a person with a heart beating about 160 times every minute, so irregular that no two beats are alike in force or rhythm. Picture each day finding a person less and less able to breathe, with the feet becoming swollen and the dropsy climbing higher and higher until the lungs are half afloat. And then perhaps for the first time this wonderful remedy is used. The whole picture gradually changes, the sick person is able to breathe more freely, and by and by he can lie down; the dropsy gradually disappears, and in two weeks he is able to be about and perhaps can attend to his business. Only recently I saw a woman seventy-nine years of age who seven years ago was rescued from exactly this kind of a situation and has taken the remedy continuously ever since.

The condition described above, representing a partial paralysis of the heart, is that in which digitalis gives its most brilliant results. In such cases little skill is necessary to obtain the results, the main point being that the quantity be sufficient. On the other hand, the application of the remedy to other heart conditions is extremely intricate, and the best results are obtained only by those who have acquired particular skill in its use. It represents a weapon of strength and should be employed only when the physician's advice can not be obtained or under continuous observation of a physician.

Nevertheless, it is important that all those who are likely to have occasion to use the remedy should know something of the philosophy of its action.


All the world knows that digitalis is the specific heart remedy. But what the world does not know is that knowledge and skill are required in applying it. Digitalis has been the instrument in saving more lives and preventing more suffering than any other remedy, and yet no one has ever learned all there is to know about its use. One thing that I have believed is that the person with heart disease should be instructed as to the nature of the remedy and how it is expected to act. Many lives are lost every year because knowledge of the nature of the remedy has not been imparted to the patient.

The man who is taking digitalis should know that it is a remedy that acts slowly. It is not at all useful as an emergency remedy. He should know that it has a tendency to produce nausea, and that it is usually impossible to get the full effect without something resembling a light seasickness. The sufferer from heart disease should know that this seasickness or nausea is not from an upset stomach, but is due to the physiological effect of the remedy on the system; just as seasickness is not due to an upset stomach, altho it may result in upsetting the stomach.

In cases of serious illness the stomach is often upset from many causes and is exceedingly irritable, so that food is not easily retained. For that reason, digitalis may not be retained on certain occasions, even when it is first administered. The true nausea of digitalis comes only after the system is saturated with it, and comes whether the drug is given by the mouth or hypodermically. Hence often the best remedy for an upset stomach is the use of digitalis, because, removing as it does the congestion and improving the condition, it removes the cause of the stomach's disorder. Therefore, when digitalis is being taken, a mere vomiting does not mean that the drug is disagreeing with the person or that the effect of it has been reached. If, however, a ,person who has taken digitalis for five or six days is deathly sick all over, just as the landsman is when he first goes to sea, that is the nausea of digitalis.

Another fact that one who is taking digitalis should know is that the amount required to produce the result differs considerably in different cases, also that it is necessary to give it until the effect has been reached. When the effect has once been reached, the benefit can be maintained over long periods of time by administering it in small quantities.

A fine thing about digitalis is that in most people its use can be continued over periods of months and years without its losing its effect. There are many instances known of people who have taken it for ten or fifteen years, and with its help have been able to do much good work that would have been impossible without its help.

The remedy is not useful in all kinds of heart trouble, and the fitting of the drug to each individual requires considerable study and observation, even on the part of the most experienced physician. The physician who has succeeded at first in adapting the remedy to the particular problem in hand has been fortunate, because as a rule several modifications are necessary before it is adjusted to the needs of the particular heart.

In speaking of digitalis, we include all the remedies of the digitalis group, because in talking to men interested in this kind of work I have found that those who have most to do with this subject use the fewest variations in its administration, and that nearly all of them have reached the conclusion that digitalis itself is better in the long run than any of its substitutes. Therefore the person who is compelled to take digitalis for the first time should not blame his medical adviser if a brief period of nausea is experienced in adjusting the drug to his needs. I have frequently told patients, when I have been in consultation, that it would be necessary for them to take a trip across the English Channel before they could get well, and in that way have so prepared them for the nausea that when it came it was not as bad as they expected, and if they succeeded in avoiding it they were happy. It is seldom possible to be sure that a person has been thoroughly under the influence of digitalis unless there has been some nausea.

Another thing that should be understood in. taking digitalis is that it is best to use the tincture or the dried leaves, as these do not lose strength when kept for a reasonable time. The infusion should be purchased only from the most reliable sources, and should not be kept more than a week.

The only substitute for digitalis is some form of physical treatment, of which the Nauheim method is the best example.

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