By Karen Appold
The bilberry, a relative of the American blueberry, cranberry, and huckleberry, is a perennial shrub that grows to about 16 inches tall. It has bright green leaves and bell-shaped flowers. The fruit resembles a blueberry, but it is darker in color and tastes more tart. It grows in the wild, mostly in northern Europe.1
Bilberry has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. It contains chemicals called anthocyanosides, which help to build strong blood vessels, improve circulation and prevent blood clots. Anthocyanosides also have significant antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to prevent some long-term health conditions including heart disease, cancer and macular degeneration (an eye disease resulting in vision loss). Bilberry also contains antimicrobial tannins—substances that act as an anti-inflammatory agent and an astringent. Tannins are also found in purple grapes and dark teas.1
Here are some specific conditions that bilberry may help with. In most cases, more research is needed.
Cancer. Preliminary studies suggest that anthocyanosides in bilberries may prevent tumor growth by blocking the effect of a particular enzyme, as well as other substances.2
Diabetes. Bilberries may help to manage blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Some studies show that it may be particularly effective when consumed with oatmeal.1
Diarrhea. The tannins found in bilberries are believed to calm diarrhea by lowering intestinal inflammation. As an astringent, it works by tightening the top layers of skin and mucous membranes. This minimizes secretions and relieves irritation.2
Eyesight. Bilberries may be effective as a treatment for diabetic retinopathy because anthocyanosides seem to protect the retina. Retinopathy occurs as a result of damage to the retina due to constant high blood glucose levels or high blood pressure. Bilberry may also help to prevent certain eye conditions including macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma. Anthocyanidins also increase the production of rhodopsin, a pigment that improves night vision and helps the eye to adapt to light changes.3
Heart health. Some studies show that anthocyanosides may improve circulation, strengthen blood vessels and capillary walls and prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol—which is a significant risk factor for atherosclerosis. The herb also acts as a vasodialator—opening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure.4
You can eat bilberries either fresh or dried, and they can be used to make tea. The extract should contain 25 percent anthocyanidin—the highest percentage of anthocyanosides—making it the strongest form of bilberry.
Karen Appold is a medical writer in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.
1Ehrlich S. “Bilberry.” University of Maryland Medical Center. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/bilberry. Reviewed March 2013. Accessed October 2014.
2Herb Wisdom. “Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus).” HerbWisdom.com. http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-bilberry.html. Accessed October 2014.
3Edgar J. “Bilberry Extract and Vision.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/features/bilberry-extract-and-vision. Reviewed April 2012. Accessed October 2014.
4Rogers J. “Bilberry Benefits and Side Effects.” Natural Alternative Remedy. http://www.naturalalternativeremedy.com/bilberry-benefits-and-side-effects/. Accessed October 2014.