Bilberries – also known as wild blueberries and blue whortleberries – are obtained from a small deciduous shrub that’s related to blueberries and blackcurrants. While the American blueberry has creamy or white coloured flesh, the inside of bilberries is purple so its content of antioxidant pigments is considerably higher. Bilberries contain a rich blend of antioxidant anthocyanin pigments and are also an excellent source of vitamin C.
Bilberry extracts strength blood vessels by stimulating the production of collagen. They also have a diuretic action and they are used medicinally to reduce fluid retention, easy-bruising, thread veins and eye problems affecting blood vessels in the retina. Their antioxidant action is also believed to protect against cataracts.
Health benefits of eating bilberries
Bilberry has been used medicinally for over a thousand years. The dried berries were traditionally used for their astringent qualities in the treatment of diarrhoea, and have also been used to treat scurvy, cystitis, kidney stones and inflammation of the mucous membranes of mouth and throat.
Extracts are used to strengthen blood vessels and the collagen-containing connective tissue that supports them, as well as improving circulation. These actions are helpful in the treatment of easy-bruising syndrome, thread veins (telangiectasis), phlebitis, varicose veins and haemorrhoids, for which it is particularly suited for use in pregnancy.
Like the closely related blueberry (which has a creamy colour flesh and lower antioxidant content) bilberries can be included in jams, muffins, and dolloped on cereals, pancakes and even ice-cream. Although they are not always easy to find fresh, some supermarkets stock them in frozen and bottled forms – and you can always grow your own.
Bilberry antioxidants are great for the skin, and are widely taken to help reduce premature ageing, inflammatory conditions such as acne, and to improve the appearance of cellulite. A regular intake of bilberries is said to improve skin plumpness and glow, partly due to the presence of anti-aging resveratrol and quercetin.
Bilberry extracts are a traditional herbal medicine used to enhance the circulation and help treat numerous skin conditions, from skin ulcers to varicose veins.
Bilberries for circulation
In a study of almost 50 people with varicose veins, taking 480 mg bilberry extracts per day increased local circulation to reduce fluid retention, feelings of heaviness, pins and needles and pain, as well as improving the appearance of overlying skin. Bilberry extracts also inhibit unwanted clot formation. Because of their beneficial effects on the circulation, bilberry extracts are prescribed in some parts of Europe for patients due to undergo surgery as it has been shown to reduce excessive bleeding.
Bilberries and gout
Dark blue-red pigmented fruits such as cherries, grapes, blueberries and bilberries contain antioxidants (anthocyanidins) can lower uric acid levels and prevent gout attacks when around 250g are eaten daily. I’ve known several patients whose attacks of gout stopped once they started taking bilberry supplements.
Bilberries and eye health
Bilberry extracts are used to treat many eye disorders including macular degeneration, cataracts, night-blindness, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy. Some researchers have also suggested that taking bilberry extracts can reduce short-sightedness after five months of regular use, perhaps by improving the reactivity and focusing ability of the eye lens.
In the eyes, bilberry pigments help to stabilize tear production, increase blood flow to the retina and regenerate the light-sensitive pigment, rhodopsin. Some researchers have even found that taking bilberry extracts can reduce short-sightedness after five months of regular use, through an effect on the eye lens. During World War II British pilots even ate bilberry jam to help improve their night vision.
Bilberries’ effectiveness in treating visual problems are due to a number of different actions. Its antioxidant blue-red pigments protect the membranes of light-sensitive and other cells in the eyes, reduce hardening and furring up of blood vessels, stabilize tear production, increase blood flow to the retina, regenerate the light-sensitive pigment rhodopsin, as well as increasing the strength of collagen fibres in capillaries and supportive connective tissues.
Bilberry is also helpful for people with diabetic retinopathy, in whom haemorrhages form within the retina of the eye. In a trial involving 40 people, of whom all but 3 had diabetic retinopathy, the effects of taking 160 mg bilberry extracts twice a day for one month was compared against inactive placebo. While taking bilberry extracts, almost 80% showed improvement in visible retinal abnormalities on ophthalmologic examination, compared with none of those taking placebo. Similar results were found in a trial involving 31 people, of whom 20 had diabetic retinopathy.
Bilberry antioxidants may also help to prevent the development and progression of cataracts. In a study of 50 people with age-related cataracts, bilberry extract plus vitamin E stopped cataract progression in 97% of cases.
Bilberry extracts are also popular to reduce puffiness, dark circles and to promote bright, healthy eyes.
A typical dose is 160 mg to 1,200mg per day.
No toxicity has been found even at high doses, as bilberry extracts are water soluble and excess is quickly excreted via the urine and bile.
Health benefits of bilberries used externally
Bilberry extracts are included in anti-ageing creams, face masks and sun lotions.
In the laboratory, bilberry extracts were found to reduce skin cell damage on exposure to UVA and UVB light. Researchers are now working to improve the antioxidant activity of blueberry-containing creams by enclosing them in nano-sized ‘liposomes’ to penetrate the skin more deeply.
A bilberry mask lightens pigmentation and discourage blemishes.
For oily skin: simply blend a handful of fresh/defrosted bilberries to form a paste. Apply for 20 minutes, then rinse.
For dry skin: add a tablespoon of fresh yoghurt and a teaspoon of macadamia, rosehip, wheatgerm or avocado oils to the bilberries, blend and use as above.
Derived from my book, Eat Well, Look Great