What Is It?
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a short, shrubby perennial plant that inhabits the woods and forest meadows of Europe, western Asia, and the Rocky Mountains of North America. As with many other plants that belong to the same plant family (Vaccinium), bilberry bears edible fruits similar to those found on the American blueberry bush. Cranberries and huckleberry belong to this plant family too.
The bilberry’s blue-black berry, which is creamy white inside, has been valued as a food since prehistoric times. Commonly referred to as “European blueberry,” it is famed as a filling for pies, and for use in cobblers, jams, and other recipes.
In addition, for at least one thousand years, European herbalists have also recommended the plant’s fruits and leaves for medicinal purposes, treating a variety of complaints with a strong, boiled tea made from the plant. Urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and diarrhea are just a few of the ailments for which bilberry has been used.
Bilberry’s modern reputation as a healing plant was sparked during World War II, when British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots noticed that their night vision was sharper than usual whenever they ate bilberry preserves before starting out on their evening bombing raids. Subsequent research revealed that bilberries are powerful antioxidants, capable of protecting cells in the eye and other parts of the body against damage from unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals.
Today, bilberry ranks among the most popular of supplements for maintaining healthy vision and for treating various vision disorders, including poor night vision, cataracts, and macular degeneration.
Researchers intrigued by the improved night vision of the bilberry-eating RAF pilots eventually identified compounds in the berry called anthocyanosides. These substances appear to fortify blood vessel walls, improving blood flow to the tiny blood vessels that keep eyes healthy, as well as to larger blood vessels that help maintain good circulation throughout the body. Anthocyanosides also appear to strengthen collagen, the protein that provides support to healthy connective tissue.
The other important healing substance in bilberry fruits–astringent compounds called tannins–help treat such ailments as diarrhea, sore throat, and inflammations in the mouth. Germany health authorities approve of bilberry fruit for mild cases of diarrhea and mouth and throat inflammation. A cooled tea made from the dried berries can be either drunk or gargled for these purposes.
Specifically, bilberry may help to:
Improve night vision as well as prevent and treat macular degeneration and cataracts. Even though the evidence showing that bilberry works for various vision-related problems is still quite weak, the herb’s popularity persists. The plant appears to assist the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye, in adjusting quickly to both dark and light. This is probably a result of the plant’s anthocyanosides, which have antioxidant properties and appear to boost oxygen and blood delivery to the eye. Herbalists have also long considered bilberry useful for treating night blindness and daytime vision impaired by glare. But while some studies indicate at least some short-term effectiveness with bilberry, others find no benefit at all over the use of a placebo (dummy drug or sugar pill).
The herb is also quite popular for preventing macular degeneration, a condition in which the light-sensitive area in the center of the retina breaks down.
It may also help slow the progression of cataracts, a clouding in the eye’s lens that is common in older people. In one study of 50 patients with age-related cataracts, it was found that taking bilberry extract along with vitamin E supplements stopped the progression of cataracts in nearly all of the participants. It remains unclear, however, whether the vitamin or the bilberry, or even the combination of the two, was responsible for this beneficial effect.
The herb has also shown promise in lessening the effects of diabetic retinopathy, a degenerative eye disease that affects people with diabetes.
Improve varicose veins and other circulatory problems. The active ingredients in bilberry appear to enhance blood flow to vessels that circulate blood throughout the body. For this reason, the herb may benefit people suffering from poor circulation in their extremities, painful varicose veins, and hemorrhoids–all discomforts that can be expected to improve with enhanced circulation. A 1988, single-blind, placebo-controlled study of this herb included 60 patients with poor circulation (or venous insufficiency). The results showed that bilberry extract decreased the participants’ discomfort when taken over a period of 30 days. The study had some design flaws, however, and more research on the subject is clearly needed.
–In parts of Europe, high-quality, pharmaceutical-grade bilberry is made into potent extracts from the whole, dried, ripe fruit. The extracts of anthocyanidins are then standardized to a certain level for greatest effectiveness. Look for extracts standardized to contain 23% to37% bilberry anthocyanosides.
–Bilberry has been used internally as well as externally in the form of compresses and other formulations made from the strong tea (which is then cooled).
For cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye problems: Take 80-160 mg of standardized extract or 1/2 teaspoon liquid extract two or three times a day.
For the prevention of diabetic retinopathy: Take 80-160 mg (standardized to 25-37% anthocyanosides) three times a day.
For varicose veins: Take 80-160 mg standardized extract three times a day.
For sore throat and diarrhea: Prepare bilberry tea by pouring 1 cup of very hot water over 1 or 2 tablespoons of dried whole berries (or 2 or 3 teaspoons of crushed berries). Let the tea steep, covered, for 10 minutes, then strain. Commercial teabags are also available. Drink up to 4 cups daily as needed.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Bilberry extract can be taken with or without food.
The dried fruits of the bilberry plant are safe to use, but it’s probably best to avoid the leaves because not much is known about their effectiveness or safety.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with bilberry.
Possible Side Effects
Bilberry fruit extract has no known side effects when taken at recommended doses, even when used on a long-term basis.
Bilberry appears to be safe to take at commonly recommended dosages.
If you suspect that you have developed an eye problem or a circulation disorder, consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
If you have a case of diarrhea that persists beyond a few days, consult your doctor.
Cataracts 80-100 mg of standardized extract or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract 2 or 3 times a day Diabetes 80-160 mg (standardized to 25-37% anthocyanosides) 3 times a day
Macular Degeneration 80-100 mg twice a day
Varicose Veins 80-100 mg of standardized extract or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract twice a day
For product recommendations and orders from the Natural Apothecary click here or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD