Bilberry: Nature’s Eyeglasses and Acupuncture Agent

bilberry plant

bilberry fruit….kinda like blueberries, but different!

A bilberry is a blue fruit that looks, tastes and behaves like a blueberry.  In fact, if you look at the picture above it’s hard to tell a difference between one and the other.

Its formal name is Vaccinium myrtillus, and also goes by the name of Huckleberry.  Like other bright flavored fruits it has a remarkable array of health benefits. In addition to the typical benefits of a berry it also has the following unique properties:

  • helps improve eyesight and prevent macular degeneration
  • helps control blood sugar
  • helps improve circulation

In the past bilberry has been used to treat diarrhea, night blindness, and in a few instances control blood sugar in diabetics.

What the Science Says

Bilberry isn’t as widely used as its cousins like the cranberry and blueberry, and thus isn’t as well studied.  The truth is there have been few high quality studies done on humans studying its various health properties.  What has been done mostly ranges from “non-conclusive” to “generally true.”

However, many of the general health properties of bilberries can probably be inferred from its nutrient composition and close relatives in the plant kingdom.  Bilberries belong to the plant species Vaccinium which also includes cranberries and blueberries.  The latter two fruits are remarkable for their levels of anthocyanins, and it appears the bilberry fruit is no different.  Most molecular studies suggest it has 15 different types of these compounds.

Anthocyanins Are Really, Really Good For You

Anthocyanins are generally considered some of the most useful phytonutrients in the plant kingdom.  Their abundance in certain plants is a large reason why whole foods vegetarian based diets tend to promote longevity and prevent lifestyle diseases.  They give many plants their color and are powderful antioxidants.  They’ve been associated with many beneficial outcomes such as the prevention of cancer, improving cholesterol metabolism, and perhaps slowing down the aging process.

The fact that bilberry has a density of these compounds on par with other “superfoods” like acai and blueberry likely means the general health properties probably carry over from one to the other.

With that said, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the particular features of the bilberry fruit and determine its best uses, if any.

Improving Vision

Perhaps the most articulated medicinal use of bilberry is its ability to improve your vision.  This claim has followed the fruit for thousands and of years and there’s even some recent anecdotal evidence to this effect.  Supposedly U.S. fighter pilots would eat bilberry jam in World War II because they said it improved their night vision.

Despite these proclamations the clinical evidence alluding to this effect is a mixed bag.  A meta-analysis published in the Survey of Ophthalmology found that most of the studies done on this effect were of low quality and what was left was inconclusive.

I’ve written before that the summation of small scale clinical trials is often not enough to form an opinion on something.  The truth is it’s hard to find out much of anything by giving some pills to a group of 2 dozen people for 3 weeks and asking them how they feel afterwards.  Medical results are hard to replicate in the real world.

That said, after 2 dozen or so studies it’d be nice to see a little more positive results.  My take from this is that it should be encouraged for someone to experiment with the use of bilberry to improve night vision but to keep expectations modest.

Circulation and Diarrhea

The anthocyanins in bilberry help reduce flow pressure in the body’s capillaries and thus helps improve circulation and can help improve the condition of various cardiovascular conditions. The most famous of which is chronic venuous insufficiency and atherosclerosis.  However, it’s important to remember that the positive studies linking these health benefits of bilberry have either been conducted on animals or cell lines.

This is all well and good and the general scope of research done on the powers of anthocyanins is deep.  However, when it comes to bilberry specifically there’ s never really been an “aha!” moment.  Just a variety of studies which nudge opinion in this direction.

Blood Sugar and Diabetes

Perhaps the most interesting property of the bilberry is its potential to help the body regulate blood sugar.  In rats at least bilberry routinely helps improve the insulin response and sugar metabolism.

It seems to improve insulin sensitivity by increasing the activation of a protein signaling pathway that includes a molecule called AMP Kinase. In a study published in Thrombosis Research found that bilberry extract helped increase the uptake of sugar into muscle cells and lowered blood sugar in diabetic rats anywhere from 33%-50%.

Supplements and Dosage

In general I don’t think taking a bilberry supplement is necessary.  They’re very good for you but buying some cranberries or blueberries is likely going to have similar health benefits and a lower price.

If you suffer from one of the maladies that bilberry is supposedly useful for, then taking a supplement is probably a reasonable choice for someone looking to use an herbal treatment.  But again, keep expectations modest and remember that a food is not a drug!

To the best of my knowledge there are no known side effects of bilberry fruit.  My guess is that your body can handle a lot.  When have you heard of someone OD’ing on blueberries?  The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends taking 80-120 mg twice a day for anyone using a bilberry supplement.  MedLine Plus rates it as “Likely Safe” for most people.

Looking through the literature some of the studies with mice used a dosage of 500mg/L.  That’s pretty large, but there were no side effects that I could find.

How And Where To Buy

If you’re thinking of buying a bilberry supplement you’ll have three choices.

You can buy bilberry extract, condensed bilberry powder, or bilberry leaf.

The bilberry leaf does not include the fruit of the plant and doesn’t have the anthocyanin content.  In folkloric medicine bilberry leaf has been used to treat diarrhea and other tissue disorders since its tannin content helps reduce inflammation and improves tissue constriction.

For most people you’ll want to stear clear of this option.

Bilberry extract will usually be a reduced concentrate that has a higher percentage of anthocyanins, typically 25%.  These bottles will usually run you anywhere from $11-$30 for 60-90 servings.

These supplements are a decent buy but I’ve written before about the drawbacks of isolated nutrients.  Often the benefits of certain nutrients are derived from their balance with other compounds. For this reason raw bilberry  powder is probably the most nutritious bet for someone looking to add bilberry into their diet.

By the pound bilberry powder will likely run you anywhere from $20-$30.  Due to the delicate nature of its nutrients going organic and/or wildcrafted is a good idea.  The organic/wildcrafted distinction is less important for bilberry extract because many of the complimentary nutrients have already been extracted away.

Pricing Comparison Chart

For anyone looking to do a little comparison shopping here’s a handy table letting you compare different bilberry supplements.

For what it’s worth I buy all my dried bulk powders and herbs from Mountain Rose herbs.  They’ve very careful about where they source their ingredients from and in my own experience their foods are always potent. If you’re willing to spare the extra change I’d recommend going with them over the cheapest option on Amazon.

Starwest Botanicals and Live Superfoods are two other high quality suppliers of different superfood products so I included them as well.

Bilberry Extract Bilberry Powder
Benefits less expensive, comes in capsule form, higher % anthocyanins wider variety of nutrients, less processed, very tasty
Cons isolated nutrients aren’t as beneficial, only comes in tablets expensive, can go bad if not eaten quickly
Price on Amazon  $11.08 $29.99
Price on Mountain Rose Herbs  N/A  $27.50
Price on Live Superfoods  $29.99
Price on Sun Burst Superfoods (Best Price)  $21.97

References

University of Maryland Medical Center.  “Bilberry”

URL:  http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/bilberry-000225.htm

A, Cignarella, et. al. “Novel lipid-lowering properties of Vaccinium myrtillus L. leaves, a traditional antidiabetic treatment, in several models of rat dyslipidaemia: a comparison with ciprofibrate.”

URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0049384896001958

Chu, Wing-Kwan “Bilberry” Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition

URL:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92770/

Takikawa, Masahito.  “Dietary Anthocyanin-Rich Bilberry Extract Ameliorates Hyperglycemia and Insulin Sensitivity via Activation of AMP-Activated Protein Kinase in Diabetic Mice”

URL: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/140/3/527.short

Ichiyanagi, Takashi.  “Bioavailability and Tissue Distribution of Anthocyanins in Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) Extract in Rats”

URL: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf0602370

Canter, Peter H. “Anthocyanosides of Vaccinium myrtillus (Bilberry) for Night Vision—A Systematic Review of Placebo-Controlled Trials”

URL: http://www.surveyophthalmol.com/article/S0039-6257(03)00128-0/abstract

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About Jonathan Bechtel

Owner of Health Kismet, maker of Incredible Greens, a green superfood supplement that combines 35 different raw greens, herbs, probiotics, grasses and fruits into a sweet tasting powder.

Comments

  1. Jack Wilks says:

    as i approach 100 days I have been true to my cravings except raw tuna which i have wanted so much. Large salads has been about 8 times the last two weeks there were days I just wanted to juice and that was all. But I wanted to mention the avacado and garlic that has been every night and now sometimes several times a night. The garlic has not caused bad breath and has really made me feel strong. Weird the whole journey but very satisfying and wonderful. Jack ps I will finally send pics in next few days.

  2. Jack Wilks says:

    Day 100 lost 26 lbs and feel great

  3. Jonathan Bechtel says:

    Jack, Awesome!

    When are you thinking of leaving your fast? What are your plans for when you get off of it?

    • Jack Wilks says:

      at 103 I have been wanting some raw tuna and bought some steak from the meat dept. much cheaper than suisi bar and soaked it in lemon juice for 3 hours. This was to make sure I could handle meat. Three houres may have been too long it didnt taste like tuna any more but was well broken down by the acid. did that last night and no problem today I have keep my morning vineger and lemon followed by my grapefruit and orange and lemon and ginger. That is now how I stArt every day, I cant imagine any other way to get going. I have bought some raw tuna this morning and will try suisi way just to see if I feel any lift from it.

      I dont hink I will ever stop intense nuitrition . I am looking forward to my first physical in years but am having a little trouble finding a doctor who will be to my thinking. To reverse all the bad I have done to my self will take much longer I would think. Just have to see cause I can find no info on line that applys to me. I am orange again in my hands and I like it. I have bowel 2 or 3 times a day that is suppose to be great. I am more flexable and very alkaline. all this is suppose to be very good. I will report my blood work when I get it.

      I really do want to see what a year of this will do for me. Taking the fish experiment is a test on my digestion to make sure all is working and to see if I get any extra feelings of strength.

      Jack

      • Jonathan Bechtel says:

        Jack,

        That’s awesome! My experience has led me to believe that it can be difficult to find a doctor who’s well versed in the practices of holistic wellness. Medical school gives you lots of training on how to treat specific conditions but surprisingly little advice on how to nurture your body through diet and everyday life choices. Nutrition isn’t touched at all. So I fear you might be right. But good luck!

        I also agree that once you get hooked on good nutrition it’s very hard to go back to any other way!

  4. “Can go bad if not used quickly” is too esoteric. Please clarify this – – how soon after getting this product must it be consumed and how? How does one store it? How much, can it be baked into something like cake or cookies and will it still retain it’s valued nutrients? What are other ways to take it? Is it safe if one in on prescription meds for heart, HBP and Diabetes? Please elaborate. Thank you.

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