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.
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|
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Bilberry”
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.”
Chu, Wing-Kwan “Bilberry” Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition
Takikawa, Masahito. “Dietary Anthocyanin-Rich Bilberry Extract Ameliorates Hyperglycemia and Insulin Sensitivity via Activation of AMP-Activated Protein Kinase in Diabetic Mice”
Ichiyanagi, Takashi. “Bioavailability and Tissue Distribution of Anthocyanins in Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) Extract in Rats”
Canter, Peter H. “Anthocyanosides of Vaccinium myrtillus (Bilberry) for Night Vision—A Systematic Review of Placebo-Controlled Trials”