Bilberries are an under-the-radar fruit that have been eaten as food and used as medicine for thousands of years. They taste delicious if you ever get the chance to eat them fresh and can now be found in powdered form or as an extract.
If you've never heard of these nutritious berries before, here's more about the top health benefits of bilberry, including the traditional uses of this fruit in herbal medicine and what modern research has discovered.
What is Bilberry? Blueberry's Little Sibling
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is closely related to two other familiar berries: blueberry and cranberry. In fact, the fruit looks almost exactly like blueberries, except smaller and with a darker pulp.
The bilberry plant is a low-growing deciduous shrub that is native to the forests and heaths of Europe. It also grows in the wilds of certain northern areas of Asia and North America and can be cultivated in cool climates.
The shrubs themselves are easy to confuse with small blueberry bushes, although they rarely get more than two feet tall. They typically bloom between May and July with rosy flowers that have a tinge of green-- one characteristic that distinguishes them from blueberries.
Bilberries appear and ripen on the bushes in July and August. They are borne singly, rather than in clusters like blueberries, and have an intense flavor despite their small size.
It should come as no surprise that bilberries have long been enjoyed fresh and made into jams, jellies, pies, etc. However, both the berries and the leaves of the plant have also been used medicinally since at least ancient Rome.
They have recorded uses for treating gastrointestinal complaints, hemorrhoids, scurvy, urinary problems, and inflammation. There's also reason to believe the berries support eye health (more on that soon).
Top Health Benefits of Bilberry
Nutritious & Packed with Antioxidants
If bilberry was a more well-known fruit, it would probably be considered a superfood by now simply based on how nutritious it is. The berries have a similar nutrient content to blueberries, including a good amount of vitamin C.
But where bilberries really shine is antioxidant content. They are incredibly rich in antioxidants, especially a specific group known as anthocyanins, which are a type of flavonoid responsible for giving red, purple, and blue fruit its dark color. (1)
Anthocyanins have many benefits all on their own and even give bilberry anticancer potential, plus an ability to calm inflammation and help protect DNA. (2)
Good for Your Eyes
In World War II, British pilots in the Royal Air Force (RAF) were said to have consumed bilberry jam before night raids because they found it improved their night vision and was the main reason behind their amazing accuracy.
Because of this, research into the possible effects bilberry may have on vision has been extensive.
While it isn't conclusively proven to enhance night vision, there is evidence that it may improve visual function and slow loss of vision in glaucoma patients. Bilberry has also shown promise for relieving eye symptoms like fatigue, dryness, and heaviness when taken daily. (3)(4)(5)
Researchers mainly put these positive effects down to the anthocyanins found in the fruit.
One of the most traditional health benefits of bilberry is its ability to soothe certain digestive upsets. It was particularly used for diarrhea and gastrointestinal inflammation, even being made into a syrup with honey as a diarrhea "tonic".
Bilberry contains plant compounds known as tannins that have a toning effect on tissues in the digestive tract, which likely plays a large role in its ability to improve diarrhea. The powerful anthocyanins in the fruit contribute greatly to calming inflammation.
Interestingly, modern research has confirmed that bilberry can help with both acute and chronic diarrhea and may improve symptoms of IBD and colitis. (6)
May Help with Blood Sugar Control
Another traditional use for bilberries was to help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. In this case, the leaf decoction was used rather than the berries, although modern research indicates that the berries may also be helpful.
For example, one study found that bilberry extract reduced blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes more effectively than a placebo. Other research indicates that the fresh berries can even improve insulin secretion. (7)(8)
While not a replacement for medication, you can easily try bilberry yourself by using dried bilberry leaves to make a tea or taking them in combination with other herbs like in this herbal Blood Sugar Manager.
Supports Healthy Skin
Bilberry can help your skin to look its best because of its anthocyanin content. Not only do anthocyanins have antioxidant power, they've also shown an ability to increase important skin proteins like collagen and elastin and strengthen the natural crosslinking of collagen. (9)(10)
What this means is that bilberries and bilberry extract may be able to protect the collagen and elastin in your body from degrading as well as strengthen existing collagen. This is good not only for your skin but also for tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.
May Help with Vascular Disorders
In Europe, there are recognized health benefits of bilberry for certain vascular disorders like venous insufficiency, varicose veins, and various encephalic circulation disturbances.
This is largely because the anthocyanins in bilberry have properties that help protect damaged capillaries and stimulate capillary repair and may also boost circulation.
Good for Heart Health
Eating any type of food that is high in antioxidants is good for your health because they help to reduce inflammation. Bilberries have the added bonus of containing vitamin K, which helps to prevent the formation of blood clots. (11)
In addition, studies have shown that bilberries and anthocyanins may also improve platelet function, blood pressure, and HDL "good" cholesterol levels while potentially lowering LDL "bad" cholesterol levels. (12)
How to Use Bilberries
If you are lucky enough to have some bilberry plants growing near your house, one of the best ways to use this superfood is to simply eat it fresh. Bilberries can also be grown if you want to try your hand at gardening, but they do need a cool climate in order to thrive and must be planted in acidic soil.
For more concentrated herbal remedies, you can use the dried berries or dried bilberry leaves to make an infusion or decoction.
The berries are also frequently sold dried and powdered, which makes an easy addition to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, etc. Bilberry extract is a more standardized preparation and is usually formulated with a specific anthocyanin content.
There are no known precautions with bilberries. They can be grown and eaten as a food and are no more dangerous than blueberries.
Theoretically, concentrated bilberry extracts may interfere with blood sugar or blood thinning medications, but these effects have not been documented in any studies yet.
Always buy your herbs or supplements from a quality supplier to avoid contaminants that may be toxic.
Enjoying the Health Benefits of Bilberry
With their delicious flavor, it's not difficult to enjoy consuming bilberries, whether you do it for your health or not. If you do want to try them for a specific health goal, be sure to take them daily to get their full effects.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.