What is Bilberry?
The bilberry is one of a number of a number of low growing shrubs belonging to the genus Vaccinium. These shrubs bear edible, dark blue to black colored berries with a number of beneficial health properties. The bilberry is variously known as whortleberry, European blueberry, blaeberry and huckleberry.
The bilberry, known scientifically as Vaccinium myrtillus L, is native to Europe and in many European languages, the name of the bilberry translates to ‘blueberry’ which may explain some of the confusion between bilberries and blueberries which belong to the same genus. Like its better known cousin, the blueberry which is famed for its health giving properties the bilberry can also boast a variety of health uses.
What is Bilberry used for?
Bilberry is commonly used as an ingredient in jellies, jams and sweet pies. However, it has also been used for many years as a medicinal aid.
Historically, the bilberry fruit has been used to treat gastric upset, diarrhea and scurvy among many other complaints. These days it is still a popular folk remedy for eye conditions, diarrhea, varicose veins and poor circulation.
You can eat the fruit just like you would eat any other edible berry or use it as an ingredient in you jams and pies. As well as the fruit, the bilberry leaves can be used for a variety of health problems including diabetes. The leaves can be used to make tea or medicinal extracts.
Nutrition and Composition
Like its cousin the blueberry which is famed for its high levels of antioxidants, the bilberry is also high in antioxidant content. The fruit contains natural chemicals called anthocyanosides which are pigments found in certain plants with extremely potent antioxidant properties. It is essential that we get plenty of antioxidants in our system as they scavenge our body for harmful free radicals and help protect cells from damage.
As well as its antioxidants, bilberries contain a variety of other vitamins and minerals. They contain Vitamin A and C as well as thiamine (B1) and riboflavin (B2). They also contain smaller amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K. When it comes to minerals, the bilberry can provide you with copper, manganese, zinc, iron and chromium.
The Health Benefits of the Bilberry
While bilberry contains certain healthy minerals, is the powerful antioxidant value of the fruit which gives it most of its health applications. Some of the most significant health benefits of the fruit include the following:
1) Improved Vision
Because of the antioxidant anthocyanosides mentioned earlier, bilberry has a variety of medicinal uses. One of the most significant effects of the powerful antioxidants is on the vision. Bilberry is known to improve a person’s night vision and eyesight in low light conditions. It also improves capillary strength and decreases vascular permeability.
According to reports, allied fighter pilots ate bilberry jam and experienced improved vision during night time flights.
Bilberry may also have applications when it comes to treating retinopathy or retinal damage. It has also demonstrated protective properties against various other eye conditions including macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma.
However, despite, its reputation for improving vision, there is precious little in the way of supporting scientific evidence and we are largely relying on anecdotal evidence.
2) Improved Circulation
Bilberry extract is widely used in Europe as a natural remedy for chronic venous insufficiency, a condition caused by poor circulation.
The condition occurs when the valves in the leg veins which transport blood to the heart get damaged. Research suggests that supplementing with bilberry extract may help treat this condition. There has also been research suggesting that anthocyanosides extracted from the fruit can help treat the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency. According to the research, it helps improve the pain, bruising, burning and swelling linked to the condition.
3) Improved Cholesterol
Those anthocyanosides that we have already talked about at length may have a variety of other medicinal uses including protection for your heart. These natural antioxidants might help to strengthen the blood vessels and prevent oxidation of the bad type of cholesterol or LDL.
High cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease such as atherosclerosis which can lead to stroke or heart attack.
One study published in 2013 found that bilberry supplementation helped to reduce both LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels in the blood. When compared with black currants, the study found that the fruit’s anthocyanoside content was 4 times greater. This makes them an excellent choice for various health conditions including cholesterol management. (1)
4) Diabetes Management
Bilberry leaves have traditionally been used to help control the blood sugar level in people suffering from diabetes. Some good quality research seems to indicate that most types of berry can help reduce the glucose response in the body after eating high sugar meals.
Studies also suggest that bilberry might be effective in regulating blood sugar. According to some proponents and the bilberry is especially effective for diabetics when the fruit is combined with some oatmeal. (2) Neither bilberry not bilberry extract is recognized as a treatment for diabetes but anecdotal reports from diabetics are positive.
5) For Diarrhea
In various parts of Europe, bilberry has traditionally been used to help treat diarrhea. The fruit itself contains tannins which are substances that have both astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Because of their tanning content, bilberries can help tighten and constrict the intestinal tissues. By reducing inflammation in the intestines, the bilberry fruit may help relieve and clear up bouts of diarrhea.
The search for a natural treatment for cancer has been in full swing for decades and one of the things that has been put to the test are the anthocyanins found in bilberry.
In vitro studies have demonstrated that these anthocyanins may have cancer-preventive qualities as well as cancer suppressive properties. This is due to the powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of the extract.
In one study, a commercial bilberry extract, rich in anthocyanins was demonstrated to inhibit the development and growth of cancerous cells of the colon. Researchers observed that bilberry extract had an anti-inflammatory effect on macrophages. Since inflammation is one of the major risk factors in cancer, bilberry extract may well have future applications in its prevention. (3)
7) Alzheimer’s Disease
There is some evidence that fruit juice and vegetable juices rich in certain phenolic compounds may help to reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. According to some studies, the risk of Alzheimer’s was greatly reduced when mice were treated with quercetin or myricetin extracts which are found in bilberry. (4) Researchers have also found that behavioral abnormality may be alleviated with the extract.
Bilberry can be eaten like any other edible berry or used as an ingredient to make tasty jams and pies. Another way to enjoy all of the health benefits of the fruit is to make to drink it in the form of a tea.
To make your bilberry tea, you need 2 or 3 teaspoons of bilberry and a cup of water.
- First of all, bring the water to the boil.
- Add your bilberry to the water.
- Allow the tea to steep for at least 10 minutes or longer to get the full value from your fruit.
- Add honey to taste if you prefer it sweet.
- Drink up and enjoy.
Bilberry is also available in supplementary extract form.
When buying your extract, look for an extract that contains at least 25% anthocyanidin. There are many unscrupulous manufacturers that may use misleading marketing tactics. Make sure that you are getting the genuine article.
- Both the fruit and the extract are generally regarded as safe with no known serious side effects.
- The anthocyanosides found in bilberry can prevent blood clotting which might increase bleeding risk especially if you are taking a blood-thinning medication.
- If you are concerned, speak with a doctor before taking bilberry extract. This especially applies to pregnant women and nursing mothers or people on blood-thinners.