Bilberries

For better eyesight and improved circulation

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a low-gro wing deciduous shrub that is native to northern Europe. Bilberries belong to the heath family, and are very closely related to blueberries and other small fruits of importance such as cranberries and huckleberries. The bilberry plant is also known by other names, including European blueberry, huckleberry, hurtleberry, and whortleberry.

In North America, bilberry is found in mountainous regions of the West. The small dark-blue bilberries can also be eaten fresh or made into juice, jams or preserves. They are low in fat and high in fiber. Commercial bilberries normally originate from Poland, Albania, and regions of the former Soviet Union.

Bilberries are smaller than blueberries, and their intense pigments are evenly distributed throughout the skin and flesh. This is in sharp contrast to blueberries in which the pigments are located principally in the berry’s skin.

History of Use

Bilberry fruit has been used in traditional European medicine for about 900 years to treat diarrhea and dysentery, and to prevent scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). The leaves and fruits are also used for their astringent and anti-inflammatory qualities. The rich content of tannins in the berries facilitates their effectiveness in the treatment of acute, nonspecific diarrhea, especially in children.

Bilberry has been used to treat mild inflammations of the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. Its rich flavonoid content provides the anti-inflammatory activity. Bilberry can also be used in a variety of other useful products, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Help for the Eyes

During World War II, pilots who flew for the British Royal Air Force reported better night vision after consuming bilberry jam. Subsequent research found that bilberry contained anthocyanidin pigments that protect the light-sensitive pigment in the rods of the retina, rhodopsin. These pigments help maintain normal levels of rhodopsin within the eye, and facilitate better vision in dim light.

Bilberry is popular in Korea and Japan, where it is used to relieve eyestrain caused by excessive computer use. Bilberry extracts appear to improve circulation within the capillaries of the retina of the eye and inhibit cataract formation in the lens.

Other Useful Properties

Bilberries are very rich in natural antioxidants such as flavonoids and phenolic acids. The bilberry pigments decrease capillary permeability and fragility, and the tendency to bruise easily. Therefore, bilberry extracts are useful for the treatment of microcirculatory disorders, such as varicose veins, venous insufficiency, and hemorrhoids. Bilberry preparations are also useful for degenerating eye conditions such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy.

The anthocyanidin pigments, along with the flavonoids and other antioxidants, help protect and relax blood vessels, inhibit blood clot formation, and improve microvascular blood flow, thereby diminishing angina events. Many of the antioxidants in bilberries are more potent than vitamin E and can inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, as well as promoting vasorelaxation.

Preliminary experiments reveal that bilberry extracts also possess antimicrobial and anticancer properties and may help in the healing of wounds and ulcers. More research is needed to validate these findings.

Safety Issues

There are no known side effects from the use of bilberry, neither are there any interactions with commonly used drugs. Bilberry appears to be safe to use during pregnancy and breast-feeding.

While bilberry fruits are safe to use, the leaves may not be safe when taken in high doses or with prolonged use.

The usual recommendation is to consume two to three standardized capsules or tablets per day. The capsules or tablets are prepared from dried ripe bilberry fruit. This recommendation would be the equivalent of consuming about 20 to 60 grams of the dried berries per day. Bilberry products are usually standardized to contain at least 25 percent of the active anthocyanidin pigments.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.