Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), also known as the blueberry or huckleberry, is a deciduous shrub grows to about one foot in height. It can be found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. It has oval-shaped leaves and produces bell-like pink flowers in the spring. In summer, the plant puts out round berries that ripen into a dark blue, sweet fruit. Bilberries tend to grow in acidic soil, often at high elevations, but can also be found in woodlands and sandy, rocky soil. The fruit has nutritional properties and has been used for centuries in baking and the making of jams, jellies, and wine. In addition, the leaf, fruit, and juice of the bilberry all have medicinal properties.
Anecdotal evidence from British pilots in World War II that their night vision was improved after eating bilberry jam stimulated an interest in bilberry as a possible means of improving eye conditions. Studies in the 1960′s and 1970′s showed that bilberry promotes the replacement of rhodopsin, a purple pigment in the rods of the eye that help with night vision.
The studies also found that bilberry has antioxidants which protect capillaries from free radical damage and promote the formation of new capillaries. Because damage to the eye caused by diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or cataracts involves capillary damage, bilberry extracts are often used as a means of protection.
Bilberry slows down or even stops enzyme reactions that harm the retina. It has been shown to reduce or remove hemorrhages in the retina, as well.
Bilberry extract can be useful in protecting against diabetic retinopathy. Bilberries contain a component called anthocyanoside which works to lower blood sugar with less toxic effects than insulin. It is important, however, that people with diabetes who take bilberry keep a close eye on their blood sugar and the effect of diabetic medications to avoid hypoglycemia.
High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol, and Atherosclerosis
The anthocyanosides in bilberry work to stabilize collagen, the substance that makes up arterial walls. This helps the flexibility of arteries, a major factor in avoiding high blood pressure. Bilberry extract works to prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaques on the arterial walls, improving arterial health. Bilberries provide protection against the effects of high cholesterol. They have not been shown to reduce cholesterol levels as a whole, but some studies show a reduction in triglyceride levels.
Inflammatory Joint Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Gout
Much in the same way that the anthocyanosides in bilberry protect the collagen of the arteries, they also strengthen and replace the collagen in the joints that is destroyed by inflammatory joint disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. Their anti-inflammatory properties help prevent further inflammation, and they have beneficial effects on the metabolism of collagen.
Bilberry leaves have antiseptic properties that help with conditions such as cystitis. Bilberry also works to keep E. coli bacteria from attaching to the lining of the bladder and intestines, a situation that can contribute to prostatitis.
Bilberry fruit acts as a circulatory tonic, improving peripheral circulation and giving relief from the discomfort of water retention in the legs and feet. It can also help reduce easy bruising, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and other conditions brought on by poor circulation.
The tannins in bilberry help prevent the intestines from transporting water to the stool. This action can relieve mild diarrhea.
Bilberry is often used in a disinfectant mouthwash to reduce mouth inflammation. Its anti-inflammatory properties work to lessen inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat.
Bilberry can be found as a tea or in tablets as an extract. Due to the fast break down of bilberry’s beneficial ingredients, smaller, more frequent doses are generally recommended over larger doses taken far apart.
Although bilberry is generally considered safe, some practitioners recommend that it be avoided during pregnancy. It can also increase the effect of anticoagulants and should be avoided when using those medicines.