Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) has a very long history of use as a food and medicinal herb. Like its relatives blueberry and huckleberry, the bilberry fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked into jams and pies. The dried fruit and the leaves have been used to treat many ailments. In modern herbal medicine, bilberry is most commonly used to protect the blood vessels, particularly the small vessels of the eye.
The fruit can be eaten right off the bush or used to make pies, jams, cobblers and other sweet treats. Like other dark-colored berries, bilberry is high in antioxidants, which protect the cells against free radicals. The berries contain a class of compounds called anthocyanosides, which have been studied for their beneficial effect on blood vessels and vision. Royal Air Force pilots in World War II claimed that eating bilberry jam improved their night vision. Bilberry is also high in vitamin C, and because of this, the berries have been used to prevent scurvy.
Traditional Herbal Medicine
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Traditional herbal preparations utilize dried bilberry fruit as a powder or a liquid extract, while bilberry leaves are dried and prepared to make tea or a liquid extract. Traditional herbalists use the leaves to treat mild urinary tract infections. The dried fruit has a drying effect and therefore has been used to treat diarrhea. Hildegard von Bingen, writing in the 12th century, recommended bilberry for bringing on a delayed period.
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Modern herbal medicine practitioners use bilberry mainly for its protective effects on the blood vessels, particularly the small vessels of the eye and the extremities. Because diabetes damages these small vessels, bilberry is often recommended to prevent these complications. Herbal extracts of bilberry fruit are also used to treat other diseases of the eye, such as cataracts. Research is ongoing on the systemic effects of anthocyanosides.
Safety and Efficacy
Although there is a great deal of anecdotal and historical evidence, the efficacy of bilberry has not been proven in double-blind clinical trials, the gold standard of modern research. Some lesser-grade trials have shown that bilberry reduces symptoms in eye conditions, but better research is needed. As a food, bilberry fruit is considered generally safe, though some people may experience stomach aches or other minor symptoms when eating or taking preparations of the fruit. Stomach symptoms have been reported after eating large doses of bilberry leaf. Consult your primary care provider before taking bilberry, particularly if you are taking medications, supplements or other herbs.
Stephanie Draus is a naturopathic doctor and assistant professor of clinical sciences at National University of Health Sciences. She has practiced in Chicago as a health consultant since 2005. She is a graduate of the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.