Bilberry benefits can be traced back to the 18th century when doctors prescribed it for diarrhea and inflammatory conditions.
Folklore suggests that during World War II, British Royal Air Force pilots ingested bilberry jam, which enhanced their night vision and enabled them to fight the enemy better.
While this tale has never been proven, the use of bilberry is quite prevalent today for a number of medical conditions; WebMD reports that sales of bilberry extract in 2010 reached $28 million.
The University of Maryland Medical Center explains that bilberry, which is native to Northern Europe, “…contains chemicals known as anthocyanosides, plant pigments that have excellent antioxidant properties.” Related to the blueberry, cranberry, and huckleberry, this perennial can reach a height of 16 inches and its fruit ripens in late summer. It looks almost identical to a blueberry and while berries can be eaten fresh or dried, made into jam or tea, bilberry extract contains the most antioxidants.
According to Organic Facts, bilberry is rich in vitamins and minerals. The plant contains vitamins A, C, B1, B2, E, and K as well as copper, chromium, manganese, zinc, and iron. The berry is said to be effective in relieving digestive issues and also useful in treating diabetes and cancer, improving cardiovascular health, and maintaining “healthy and disease-free eyes.”
The claims regarding eye health have been backed up by some studies. In a 2015 animal study, researchers examined the “…protective effect of bilberry anthocyanin extract (BAE)” on rabbits whose retinal cells had been damaged by excessive exposure to visible light. The findings indicated that the use of BAE on these animals “…exhibited protective effects by increasing the antioxidant defense mechanisms…”
Another study conducted in 2015 involved 180 patients with type 2 diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, i.e., damage to the blood vessels of the retina resulting in vision loss , and age-related macular degeneration, i.e., progressive vision loss that affects everyday activities. Researchers administered a drug containing 60 mg of bilberry extract together with other vitamins and minerals as an antioxidant to patients in the study group; they also included gingko biloba to protect the blood vessels.
At the end of the trial, those in the study group had much sharper eyesight, a decrease in macular thickness and improved sensitivity to light. The researchers concluded that this combination therapy “… appeared to be the most effective and can be considered not only a preventive, but also a therapeutic measure in type 2 diabetes patients with initial stages of diabetic retinopathy…” and is beneficial for those also diagnosed with concurrent age-related macular degeneration.
In addition to addressing eye health, the anti-inflammatory properties in bilberry might have an impact on metabolic syndrome, the risk factors that increase the chance of developing a disease. Researchers in Finland examined the effects of a diet rich in bilberry on individuals with metabolic syndrome. The study group ate the equivalent of 400 mg fresh bilberries, while the control group followed its usual dietary habits. At the end of the trial, inflammation in the study group was significantly lower than it was in the control group, leading the researchers to suggest that adding bilberries to your meal planning may help decrease the risk of damage to your heart and other bodily systems.
Bilberries might also offer some good news for those who are concerned about Alzheimer’s disease. Another study out of Finland, explored the use of bilberry and black currant extracts and how they would affect the proteins in the brain responsible for the plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Mice who were fed the bilberry extract showed a decrease in these plaques. When black currant extract was included in the findings, both berries together demonstrated a positive effect on “…spatial working memory deficit.”
Words of warning
In spite of studies that support the use of bilberry, individuals taking blood thinning medications and anti-platelet drugs should exercise caution when it comes to taking the fruit. And some clinical trials warn that overuse of the berry could diminish its positive results and cause toxicity.
United States residents interested in trying bilberry will not find the fruit at their local grocery story or farm stand, but will have to resort to consuming bilberry as an extract, jam or tea, since the fruit is not found in this country,