Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a small perennial shrub that is reputed to have many valuable health benefits. Although scientific research is often sketchy on the “proven” health benefits of bilberry, one recent study conducted at an Italian University indicates that bilberry extract may actually help to prevent eye conditions such as glaucoma.
About the Plant Bilberry
Bilberry is not the same as blueberry, although the two plants are related; bilberry is alternatively known by the vernacular name, blaeberry, which maybe where the confusion arises. Both bilberries and blueberries belong to the plant family Ericaceae , the same plant family as cranberries and huckleberries. They are found in Europe and North America, in addition to northern Asia. Bilberries are smaller than blueberries and are more black than blue in color. Both the fruit and the leaves of bilberries are used for medicinal purposes.
Traditional Use of Bilberry
Bilberry is a plant that has been used for health purposes for many hundreds of years. In the past, bilberry has been used to treat diarrhea and scurvy. Although scientific studies have not “proven” the health benefits of bilberry to treat such conditions, traditional medicine did not concern itself so much with how bilberry works “scientifically”, only that it appears to work for a number of health conditions. It is also believed that bilberry may reduce inflammation of the intestines. Bilberry has anti-inflammatory, astringent, anti-aging, anti-carcinogenic and anti-bacterial properties.
Chemical Components of Bilberry
The most active chemical component of bilberries is anthocyanosides: anthocyanosides possess antioxidant properties which help to control free radicals in the body. Free radicals damage cells if left unchecked and in turn can lead to heart disease, eye deterioration and cancer. Bilberries also contain vitamin C and tannins; tannins have anti-inflammatory properties.
Bilberry for Vision Difficulties
One of the most prominent “benefits” of bilberry is its use for vision problems. The ingredient anthocyanosides found in bilberries is thought to be responsible for helping improve vision-related problems. British fighter pilots in World War II reported that their nighttime vision was improved after they ate bilberry jam. A recent study conducted at the University of Chieti-Pescara in San Valentino, Italy used bilberry extract and a French maritime pine bark extract on 80 subjects to test the effectiveness of the plants with vision difficulties. Results showed that blood flow to the eye was improved, intraocular pressure was reduced, and there was a prevention of increase in ocular hypertension, all symptoms associated with glaucoma. This study confirmed the results of a previous scientific study.
Other Health Benefits of Bilberry
The leaves of bilberry are also cited for use in the control of blood sugar levels in diabetes patients; although there have been no scientific studies conducted on humans to demonstrate this, bilberry leaves are listed as an aid to control insulin levels by several natural medicine sources. Other uses of bilberry include treatment for stress, anxiety, cataracts, inflammation, menstrual cramps, varicose veins and circulatory problems. Bilberry (both fruit and leaves) can be made into either extracts or herbal teas, although bilberry extract usually contains the highest active ingredient for health purposes (anthocyanosides).
In general, bilberry is considered safe to use. However,extended use of bilberry may have some side effects; in particular bilberry leaf extracts contain tannins that can lead to severe weight loss, muscle spasms and other toxic effects, if taken for a long time. Some prescribed medications may interact with bilberry, in particular those taken for diabetes and for blood thinning. It is always best to check with your health care provider, or an alternative medicine practitioner, on how to use bilberry for a specified health condition, particularly if you have little or no experience in the use of natural health products.
- Balch, James F and Balch, Phyllis A, 1997 Prescription for Nutritional Healing US: Avery
- University of Maryland Medical Center website: Bilberry
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website: Bilberry
- American Botanical Council website: Herbclip: Bilberry, French Maritime Pine, Glaucoma