Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a European berry shrub that is related to the blueberry, huckleberry, and bearberry plants that grow in the United States. Bilberry is a small, wild, perennial shrub that grows throughout Europe and is now cultivated from the Far East to the United States. The shrub yields large amounts of small, darkish blue berries. Besides their medicinal use, they are often eaten fresh or made into jams and preserves. The leaves of the plant are used medicinally as well, but to a lesser extent than the berries. The qualities of the herb are sour, astringent, cold, and drying.
Bilberry has been used by European herbalists for centuries. In Elizabethan times, bilberries were mixed with honey and made into a syrup called rob that was prescribed for diarrhea and stomach problems. The berries were also used for infections, scurvy, and kidney stones. The leaves of the plant were used as a folk remedy for diabetes. Bilberry is most famous, though, for its long use as a medicine for eye and vision problems. Legend has it that during World War II, British and American pilots discovered that eating bilberry jam before night missions greatly improved their night vision. Bilberries then became a staple for Air Force pilots. Since then, extensive research in Europe has shown that bilberries contain specific compounds that have beneficial effects on the eyes and circulatory system. In France, bilberries have been prescribed since 1945 for diabetic retinopathy, a major cause of blindness in diabetics.
Bilberries are high in substances called flavonoids, which are found in many fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, peas, and are particularly abundant in citrus fruits and berries. Flavonoids are chemicals technically known as polyphenols. Flavonoids have antioxidant and disease-fighting properties. Antioxidants are substances that help cells in the body resist and repair damage. The flavonoids found in bilberry provide the blue color of the berry. The bilberry flavonoids are called anthocyanosides, which were found to be the main active ingredients.
Bilberry flavonoids can increase certain enzymes and substances in the eyes that are crucial to good vision and eye function. Furthermore, anthocyanosides can increase circulation in the blood vessels in the eyes, and help these blood vessels repair and protect themselves. Specifically, research has shown that anthocyanosides help stabilize and protect a protein called collagen, which is a basic building block of veins, arteries, capillaries, and connective tissue. Particularly, anthocyanosides seem to work favorably in the tissues found in the retina, the back of the eye where major functions of vision take place. The retina is composed of millions of tiny nerve cells and blood vessels, which anthocyanosides can help support. Bilberry is a common treatment for many varieties of retinopathy, a disorder in which the intricate blood and nerve vessels in the retina are damaged. Retinopathy particularly affects people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and sickle cell anemia.
Many studies have documented bilberry's usefulness as a medicinal herb. One study demonstrated that bilberry extract used with Vitamin E prevented the progression of cataracts in 48 of 50 patients with cataract formations. In animal studies, bilberry reduced and stabilized blood sugar levels. In an Italian study, bilberry's flavonoids lowered cholesterol levels in the blood and improved circulation.
Bilberry is most commonly used as a component of treatment for various vision and eye disorders, including glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration. However, people with glaucoma should be monitored by an eye doctor regularly, and those with acute glaucoma should not depend on bilberry alone to protect their vision. They can use bilberry along with other emergency medical treatments. Bilberry is included in the treatments for many types of retinopathy and is also used for eye fatigue, poor night vision, and nearsightedness. It can be used as a preventative measure for glaucoma and cataracts, and to help those who require precise night vision like cab drivers and pilots. Bilberry's circulation improving and cholesterol lowering qualities make it useful in the treatment of varicose veins and atherosclerosis. It is also occasionally prescribed for arthritis.
Fresh bilberries can be eaten like blueberries, although they are difficult to find outside of Europe. Two to four ounce servings of the fresh fruit can be eaten three times a day. One to two cups each day is a good dose. Dried bilberries are sometimes available in herb or organic health food stores, and two or three small handfuls can be eaten per day. However, dried berries are likely to contain only a small amount of the flavonoids.
Bilberry supplements are widely available in health food stores. They can be purchased as capsules and liquid extracts. A high-quality supplement may contain a standardized formula of up to 25% anthocyanocides. The dosage recommended with this percentage of active ingredients is 80-160 mg taken three times daily. Bilberry supplements may be taken with food or on an empty stomach. Bilberry jam and syrup may also be used.
For eye and circulatory problems, bilberry can be taken with ginkgo to increase its beneficial effects. Vitamins A, C and E may also enhance bilberry's healing effects in the eye. Some suggestions have been made that other flavonoid-containing supplements, such as pine bark extract and grape seed extract, can possibly enhance bilberry's healing properties.
Bilberry may be used as prevention and herbal support for eye conditions, but should not replace medical care. Consumers with vision problems should be thoroughly and immediately examined by an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) before any treatment or remedy is used.
Bilberries can be taken in large doses without any side effects. However, bilberry leaves shouldn't be taken in large doses or over long periods of time because they are toxic.
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HerbalGram (a quarterly journal of the American Botanical Council and Herb Research Foundation) P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345, (800) 373-7105. <http://www.herbalgram.org>.
Herb Research Foundation. 1007 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO 80302.
Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative. <http://www.dsqi.org>.