Reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Mercola.
Bilberry is a shrub belonging to the Ericaceae family. This family contains around 3,500 species, most of which are shrubs as well, and are identified by their alternating leaves that have no stipules. Well-known examples include blueberry, Labrador tea and bilberry.1 The last example in particular, is native to Europe and typically grows in heaths, meadows and forests. Throughout different periods, it has been known as whortleberry, huckleberry and blaeberry.2
What Is Bilberry?
Bilberry is a shrub often confused with blueberry due to their similar appearances. However, there are ways to distinguish them from each other. Bilberry fruits usually measure 3 to 10 millimeters (mm) in diameter, compared to blueberries, which measure roughly 5 to 13 mm in diameter. Bilberry is softer compared to blueberry as well, and the taste is sweet, with a slight tart and acidic quality.3
The plant itself is very small. It typically only reaches a height of 6 to 12 inches, and very little maintenance is needed. It can thrive in the wild, especially in soil that has poor nutrition and high acidity.4 However, you can grow it in your home as well using seeds.
Bilberry thrives best in a cool climate, but it can also grow in warmer locations as long as you have partial sun with an afternoon shade. As for watering, it should be done whenever the soil dries out. Expect the berries to appear and ripen in autumn.5
The Health Benefits of Bilberry
Consuming bilberry may provide positive effects on your health. It has been known to help with the following:
• Maintaining Eye Health
Bilberry is largely known for its benefits in helping promote eye health. According to a World War II legend, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force pilots consumed bilberry before flying on nighttime missions. It was believed that consuming the fruit helped improve their ability to see in the dark, which gave them good accuracy.6
There may be some truth to this claim, as several studies have examined the ocular benefits of bilberries since then. In one study, a combination of bilberry anthocyanins (a type of antioxidant) and vitamin E had a 97 percent success rate in preventing cataract progression.7 In another study, bilberry was found to help fight against endotoxin-induced uveitis (inflammation of the uvea) in mice.8
• Maintaining Heart Health
Consuming this tiny fruit may provide big benefits for your heart. According to one study wherein participants consumed moderate amounts of bilberry for eight weeks, researchers noted that the berries helped decrease HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and helped improve platelet function and blood pressure.
• Lowering the Risk of Cancer and DNA Damage
The berry family is rich in anthocyanins that can help lower your risk of cancer and protect your DNA from damage. In a 2004 study, researchers discovered that consuming anthocyanin-rich foods can help inhibit key regulators that can lead to cancer, as well as helping reduce tumor growth.9
• Reducing Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s defense mechanism when it deals with disease and eliminating pathogens. However, when it becomes chronic, it can affect your quality of life. In this regard, the anthocyanins of bilberry can help reduce your risk of unwanted inflammation.
In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers noted that participants who consumed anthocyanin-rich bilberry extracts helped inhibit factors that stimulate inflammatory response in their bodies. They went on to suggest that anthocyanin foods may have a positive effect on alleviating chronic inflammatory diseases.10
• Controlling Diabetes
In Europe, bilberry is one of the most popular natural choices to help control diabetes and provide relief from its symptoms.11 The compounds in bilberry can help lower blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin secretion, according to results gathered from an animal study.12
Different Uses of Bilberry
Historically, bilberry has been used for various purposes. In the medieval ages, consuming bilberry was believed to help treat diarrhea. In Scotland and Ireland, it was used to dye wool, linen and paper.13 Nowadays, bilberry is mainly added to various dishes. The best known preparations include:
Raw: Bilberry can be simply eaten raw for a quick snack.14
Tea: Bilberry can be enjoyed as a warm cup of tea.15
Pie: You can create a delicious pie by using bilberries as the filling.16
Juice: The berries can be turned into a juice that you can enjoy any time of the day.17
Jam: Simply boil the berries in water and a natural sweetener to make a delicious jam that you add to your favorite foods.18
How to Make Bilberry Tea
Bilberry is traditionally eaten raw, but this may not be palatable to your taste. If you want to try bilberry, you can make tea out of it, allowing you to obtain its health benefits easily. Another advantage of making your own tea is that the ingredients are fresh, so you can be sure that it does not contain preservatives and toxins that manufacturers usually use.19
1 to 3 Tbsp. of crushed dried bilberries, depending on your preference
1 cup of water
Place the dried bilberries in your cup.
Boil the water, then pour it into the cup as well.
Steep the mixture for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve and enjoy.
Note: If you don’t want bilberry chunks in your tea, you can boil them, then strain the liquid afterwards.22
Bilberry Can Cause These Two Side Effects
The great thing about bilberry is that it is generally safe to eat. However, it has been known to produce a couple of side effects, which you need to know about.
If you’re currently taking a blood-thinning medication for an ongoing condition, bilberry may interfere with its function. It’s believed that the antioxidants in bilberry may thin your blood as well, which can make blood clotting difficult when you sustain a wound or cut during the course of your treatment.23
In addition, bilberry can amplify the effects of diabetes medication, since it has the ability to help lower blood sugar levels. If the two are combined, you may develop hypoglycemia, which is a condition marked by blood sugar levels lower than the normal, safe range. It’s highly recommended that you do not consume bilberry if you’re currently taking diabetes medication.24
1 University of Hawaii, “Ericaceae”
2 Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd Edition, “Chapter 4 — Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.)
3 Ateriet, “Are Blueberries and Bilberries the Same Thing?” July 25, 2016
See reference 3
5 SFGate, “How to Grow Vaccinium Myrtillus”
6 WebMD, “Bilberry Extract and Vision”
See reference 2
8 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, “Protective Effects of Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus L.) Extract Against Endotoxin-Induced Uveitis in Mice.” April 28, 2010
9 Biochemistry (Moscow), “Anti-angiogenic, Antioxidant and Anti-carcinogenic Properties of a Novel Anthocyanin-rich Berry Extract Formula” January 2004
10 The Journal of Nutrition, “Anthocyanins Inhibit Nuclear Factor-kappaB Activation in Monocytes and Reduce Plasma Concentrations of Pro-inflammatory Mediators in Healthy Adults.” August 2007
11 Acta Diabetologica, “What do herbalists suggest to diabetic patients in order to improve glycemic control? Evaluation of scientific evidence and potential risks.” September 2004
12 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, “Insulin Secretion by Bioactive Anthocyanins and Anthocyanidins Present in Fruits.” January 12, 2005
13 The Pharmaceutical Journal, “Visual Benefits of Bilberry” August 14, 2008
14 Health Kismet Blog, “Bilberry: Nature’s Eyeglasses and Acupuncture Agent” October 1, 2012
15 The People’s Pharmacy, “Bilberry” September 4, 2005
16 TESCO Real Food, “Bilberry Pie With Cream Recipe”
17 SwedishFood.com, “Bilberry Drinks”
18 The European Mama, “Bilberry Jam”
See reference 15
20 Learn About Tea, “Bilberry Tea”
See reference 20
See reference 15
23 University of Maryland Medical Center, “Bilberry”
See reference 23
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