Ever sat down with a steaming cup of bilberry tea or sampled some bilberry jam on your toast? If you’re wondering what the heck bilberry is (or if what you just read might have been a typo), you’re not alone.
Most of us aren’t familiar with this berry – and for good reason. Bilberries mostly grow wild in bushes across northern Europe, and unlike many other berries, you can’t buy them fresh from the produce section of most grocery stores.
Though the bilberry resembles the blueberry in name and appearance, its berries are smaller, softer, darker and more tart. But like its blueberry cousin, bilberries are rich in antioxidants and have long been praised for their supposed health benefits.
Their berries and leaves have been harvested since the Middle Ages as antidotes for everything from infections and burns to diarrhea and scurvy. Though bilberries are packed with essential vitamins, they are best known for their concentration of anthocyanins, a polyphenol that gives the berries their purplish hue and restorative reputation.
Extracts of the berry, sold as tablets, capsules and drops, can be found in many U.S. health food stores, along with juices, powders and teas. Bilberry is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic as a supplement for preserving vision, but numerous studies demonstrate its capabilities for supporting health throughout the body. Here are five ways how:
- Maintaining eyesight – Legend has it that British pilots serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II ate bilberry jam to sharpen their vision for nighttime missions. Though clinical studies lack sufficient evidence to support the claim that bilberry improves night vision, the berries do contain vitamin A, carotenoids and other antioxidants shown to be good for the eyes. Researchers have observed that bilberry may help preserve vision in healthy people, making them less susceptible to age-related degeneration in the eyes, as well as protect the retina.
- Regulating blood sugar and lipids – In traditional medicine, bilberry has long been recognized for its ability to control blood sugar. As Michigan State University researchers discovered, antioxidants present in bilberries are capable of stimulating insulin production, which helps keeps blood sugar levels in check. Consuming bilberry has also been shown to support better cholesterol balance in the body.
- Promoting circulation – Daily consumption of bilberry over several months has shown its potential for strengthening blood vessels and capillaries in the vascular system and easing itching, swelling and irritation in the damaged valves that form varicose veins. Unobstructed blood flow helps support heart health, and past studies have also demonstrated the positive effect of bilberries on blood pressure and platelet function.
- Detering diarrhea – Bilberry has been used to ease diarrhea for centuries, and that continues today. Along with helping quell indigestion, the berry contains chemicals called tannins that ease inflammation in the colon, along with astringents like pectin that help tissues contract properly.
- Building immunity. The high volume of antioxidants in bilberries support the immune system in many ways. They are capable of neutralizing free radicals, protecting cells and tissues from pathogens as well as the degenerative effects of aging, and inhibiting factors that stimulate inflammatory responses in the body. Research even links them to improved detoxification in the liver, kidneys and skin.
Safety Tips for Bilberry Use
Bilberry extract supplements are typically safe when taken in recommended doses over short periods of time, but research is scant on the effects of their long-term use. Taking high doses of bilberry or using it over a long period of time may be risky, so ask your doctor about the best regimen to follow. When supplement shopping, make sure the extract contains the standard amount of anthocyanosides, which should be 25 percent.
While bilberry doesn’t have any known side effects, it can interfere with blood thinners, including aspirin, and keep blood from clotting properly if you are on them. Bilberry may also cause allergic reactions for some people, including swelling in the mouth, clammy skin and breathlessness.
It’s best not to take bilberry with blood glucose medication or blood sugar can go too low. Medical experts also recommend avoiding bilberry if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have an upcoming surgery planned.
Bilberries do grow in the Rocky Mountain region, so if you can get your hands on a carton of fresh ones, that might be the best way to experience their results. You can boil them with a natural sweetener like honey to make jam or enjoy them in their most popular form overseas: as a tart or pie filling!