What is bilberry?
Have you ever experienced an intense, fruity, tangy taste when eating from jam bottles or pie packs?
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), also known as European blueberry, is native to northern Europe, Asia, and the United States and has been used medicinally both in jam and pies. This berry is derived from the Danish word “Bollebar” meaning “dark berry”.1 In June, it appears as small pink-bear flowers, and by August, the small bushes are covered in bilberries, which are commonly harvested for jams, pies, and sauces. Bilberries are similar to blueberries, but they have red inner flesh rather than white flesh. There are many names for these plants depending on where you live: blaeberry in Scotland, whortleberry, whinberry, whinberry, and arts elsewhere.
Bilberry fruit contains anthocyanosides (a compound name for anthocyanins), which are plant pigments with powerful antioxidant properties. Berries are sold fresh, frozen, in jams and preserves, and as a juice ingredient in European countries. Bilberry finished products (dried fruit, dried powdered fruit, and powdered extracts) are sold as dietary supplements in the United States and as phytomedicines in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere.2 Bilberries can be found growing wild in heathland on low bushes with lone, blue-black fruits.
Health benefits of bilberry
These European dark-blue fruits that belong to the same family as blueberries and cranberries offer several potential health benefits.
- Antioxidant properties: It has a long history of medicinal use, especially in European herbal medicine as a result of its rich antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are compounds that aid in preventing cell deterioration brought on by dangerous molecules known as free radicals. In addition to being produced by the body's normal cellular processes, free radicals can also be created outside the body by things like pollution, smoking, and exposure to specific chemicals. Free radical build-up can lead to oxidative stress, which has been linked to a number of diseases and ageing. Bilberries are packed with antioxidant properties that are excellent for cell repair and tissue formation. An antioxidant particular to bilberries is anthocyanins, a polyphenolic component that is responsible for their deep blue colour and antioxidant properties. In comparison to other berry varieties like strawberry, cranberry, blueberry, elderberry, sour cherry, and raspberry, bilberry has a higher anthocyanin content.3 The total anthocyanin content of bilberries typically ranges from 300-700 mg/100 g fresh fruit, though this range varies depending on the mode of cultivation, growing environment, and berry ripeness.45 In addition to anthocyanins, 100 g of fresh bilberry contains a small amount of vitamin C (3 mg), quercetin (3 mg), and catechin.57 Although anthocyanins' antioxidant properties have received the majority of the attention about the health benefits of bilberries, the effects are likely to go beyond simple antioxidant action to include cell signalling pathways, gene expression, DNA repair, cell adhesion, as well as anti-neoplastic and anti-microbial effects. 8
- Eye health: Bilberries have been reported to improve eye health. The action of bilberries in improving eye health has been credited to the famous stories of Second World War Royal Air Force pilots, who allegedly attributed their fatal accuracy to their large consumption of bilberry jam. Despite the paucity of specific studies on bilberries, there is evidence that the anthocyanins found in bilberries may be beneficial for vision. Since bilberries can protect cells, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood sugar levels, it seems highly likely that they would be able to support eye health in any case.9 Studies have demonstrated beneficial outcomes, such as reduction of retinal abnormalities, improvement of dark adaptation, rise in capillary resistance, and slowing of progression of lens opacity and myopia. For instance, 4 months of supplementation with bilberry anthocyanins and vitamin E was reported to have a 97% success rate in preventing cataract progression in a study of 50 patients with mild senile cataracts.10 Anthocyanins found in bilberries have been shown in studies to improve blood circulation in the small blood vessels of the eyes, promote the regeneration of rhodopsin (a pigment in the retina), and improve the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the eye tissues. These effects have the potential to improve vision and protect against certain eye diseases.11 The quality of life of virtually all elderly people is impacted by age-related vision loss, which is primarily caused by senile cataracts and macular degeneration. In people with diabetes for ten or more years, diabetic retinopathy is very common and is the main cause of blindness in developed nations.12 To address the enormous clinical issue of vision loss due to age and diabetes, the efficacy of bilberries has been supported by animal and cell-culture studies and small human trials, indicating a need for further, more detailed human studies. In addition to bilberries, it's essential to overall eye health to consume a varied diet full of fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in nutrients that are good for the eyes, such as vitamins A, C, and E and omega-3 fatty acids. It is essential to keep your vision healthy by getting a regular eye examination and following good eye care habits, like limiting screen time and protecting your eyes from excessive sunlight.
- Anti-diabetic properties: Bilberries may benefit people with diabetes because of their nutritional profile and potential impact on blood sugar regulation. It's important to remember that bilberries cannot be substituted for appropriate medical care and lifestyle management for diabetes. The bilberry plant has anti-diabetic properties, and its berries and leaves have been used for centuries to treat diabetes symptoms.13 In fact, bilberries were ranked fourth on a list of herbal remedies for better glycemic control in a survey of 685 Italian herbalists.14 Bilberries reported hypoglycemic effect is a desirable effect for the prevention or control of type 2 diabetes, which is a common condition caused by insulin resistance and B cell failure. Type 2 diabetes is associated with increased oxidative stress, inflammation, dyslipidemia, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and vision loss due to cataracts and retinopathy. Also, obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Berry polyphenols may aid in the prevention of obesity by inhibiting digestive enzymes such as lipase and reducing fat absorption. It's important to note that bilberries are not a cure for diabetes, even though they appear to offer potential advantages for those with the disease. Diabetes management requires appropriate medical care, adherence to prescribed medications, regular physical activity, and a well-balanced diet. It is advised to seek advice from a medical professional or a registered dietitian for individualized direction and suggestions based on specific health requirements.
- Anti-inflammatory properties: Bilberry extracts possess anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is a protective mechanism, but chronic inflammation increases oxidative stress and is the root cause of many age-related diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.15 Additionally, dietary reactions and bilberry effects on inflammation can differ from person to person. Studies have reported bilberries to be rich in flavonoids that could curb inflammation and promote healthy ageing. Incorporating bilberries, along with other anti-inflammatory foods, into a healthy diet may be beneficial. However, before making any significant changes to your diet or using specific foods for therapeutic purposes, you should always consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian.
- Cardiovascular health: Antioxidants found in bilberries are beneficial to heart health. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the main causes of death worldwide. Central obesity, diabetes, hypertension, elevated lipid levels, and high uric acid levels are important CVD risk factors. Increased oxidative stress may also play a role, and inflammation is a significant factor. Atherosclerosis, the primary cause of CVD, is an inflammatory process associated with oxidative processes in and damage to the vascular endothelium.16 As a result, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of anthocyanins present in bilberries are relevant in preventing CVD and protecting the heart. In addition, the anthocyanins in bilberry fruit have been reported to inhibit platelet aggregation and smooth muscle to cause high blood pressure and vascular health. Studies have explored the cognitive benefits of bilberries in protecting the brain from damage. The occurrence of age-related degenerative diseases that lead to cognitive decline is widespread and unrelenting. Bilberry's vasodilatory and anti-inflammatory effects are expected to have a significant impact on the preservation of cognition and neuromotor function by lowering the risk of both haemorrhagic and thrombotic strokes.17
- Anticancer properties: Berries have anticancer effects. Some research studies have used bilberries in experimental studies to prove their anticancer properties. As a result of their antioxidant activity, bilberry fruit and leaf contain both cancer-preventive and cancer-suppressing properties. 18
Bilberries are very nutritious and have a high nutritional value. In nature, bilberries act as polyphenol, vitamin, and mineral pills. A 100-gram (roughly a half-cup) serving of raw bilberries has 65 calories, 0.8 g of protein, 10.2 g of carbohydrates, and 1.1 g of fat. Additionally, bilberries offer 7.2 mg of vitamin C and 1.9 mg of vitamin E per 100 g.19
Side effects and other concerns
Fresh bilberries and bilberry extract are safe to consume, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Although anthocyanins can reduce blood platelet clotting, bilberry extract is not recommended to take along with blood thinners such as warfarin. Likewise, bilberries may interfere with some diabetes medications and prevent blood clotting during wound healing.20 Bilberries should not be consumed if you are sensitive to or allergic to foods that contain tannins. Pregnant women and children are also advised not to take bilberry extract because there is insufficient evidence to say whether it is safe.
Storage and safety of bilberries: Unwashed bilberries can be stored in the refrigerator for one to two weeks. Berries can also be frozen. They should be kept in the freezer for 8 to 12 months if stored in an airtight container.
Bilberry is native to northern Europe, Asia, and Canada and has always been a valuable and significant component of the human diet. It can be eaten as food in the form of jam, in pie, or as a supplement. Bilberry fruit and leaves contain a variety of nutrients, but anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds that give berries their red, blue, and purple colours, have been found to have a wide range of health-related properties, including antioxidant, antitumorigenic, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycemic, and neuroprotective effects. Eating more bilberries (or other anthocyanin-rich fruit) may occasionally have some protective benefits, though bilberries shouldn't be used as a replacement for standard treatment or preventive measures for any medical condition. If you consider bilberry to be beneficial to you, consult with your doctor to weigh the benefits and risks of taking such a supplement.
- ‘Bilberry’. NCCIH, https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/bilberry
- Foster S, Blumenthal M. The adulteration of commercial bilberry extracts. HerbalGram. 2012;96:64-73.
- Cravotto, G., et al. ‘Phytotherapeutics: An Evaluation of the Potential of 1000 Plants’. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, vol. 35, no. 1, Feb. 2010, pp. 11–48. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20175810/ Cravotto G, Boffa L, Genzini L, Garella D. Phytotherapeutics: An evaluation of the potential of 1000 plants. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010;35:11–48.
- Burdulis D, Sarkinas A, Jasutienè I, Stackivicenè E, Nikolajevas L, Janulis V. Comparative study of anthocyanin composition, antimicrobial and antioxidant activity in bilberry ( Vaccinium myrtillus L.) and blueberry ( Vaccinium corymbosum L.) fruits. Acta Pol Pharm. 2009;66:399–408. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19702172/
- Upton R, editor. Bilberry Fruit Vaccinium myrtillus L. Standards of Analysis, Quality Control, and Therapeutics. Santa Cruz, CA: American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium; 2001.
- Burdulis D, Sarkinas A, Jasutienè I, Stackivicenè E, Nikolajevas L, Janulis V. Comparative study of anthocyanin composition, antimicrobial and antioxidant activity in bilberry ( Vaccinium myrtillus L.) and blueberry ( Vaccinium corymbosum L.) fruits. Acta Pol Pharm. 2009;66:399–408. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26762453_Comparative_study_of_anthocyanin_composition_antimicrobial_and_antioxidant_activity_in_bilberry_Vaccinium_myrtillus_L_and_blueberry_Vaccinium_corymbosum_L_fruits
- Erlund I, Marniemi J, Hakala P, Alfthan G, Meririnne E, Aro A. Consumption of blackcurrants, lingonberries and bilberries increases serum quercetin concentrations. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003;57:37–42.
- Benzie I. F. F, Wachtel-Galor S. Vegetarian diets and public health: Biomarker and redox connections. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2010;13:175–91.
- Zafra-Stone S, Taharat Y, Bagchi M, Chatterjee A, Vinson J.A, Bagchi D. Berry anthocyanins as novel antioxidants in human health and disease prevention. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007;51:675–83. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17533652/
- Bravetti G.O, Fraboni E, Maccolini E. Preventive medical treatment of senile cataract with vitamin E and Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides: Clinical evaluation. Ann Ottalmol Clin Ocul. 1989;115:109–16.
- Ghosh D, Konishi T. Anthocyanins and anthocyanin-rich extracts: Role in diabetes and eye function. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2007;16:200–8. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17468073/
- Chu WK, Cheung SC, Lau RA, Benzie IF. Bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus L.). Herbal Medicine. 2011 Mar 28;20115386:55-71. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22593936/
- Cravotto G, Boffa L, Genzini L, Garella D. Phytotherapeutics: An evaluation of the potential f 1000 plants. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010;35:11–48. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20175810/
- Cicero A. F. G, Derosa G, Gaddi A. What do herbalists suggest to diabetic patients in order to improve glycemic control? Evaluation of scientific evidence and potential risk. Acta Diabetol. 2004;41:91–8.
- Aggarwal B.B, Vijayalekshmi R.V, Sung B. Targeting inflammatory pathways for prevention and therapy of cancer: Short-term friend, long-term foe. Clin Cancer Res. 2009;15:425–30. Available from: https://aacrjournals.org/clincancerres/article/15/2/425/73864/Targeting-Inflammatory-Pathways-for-Prevention-and
- Libby P, Ridker P.M, Maseri A. Inflammation andatherosclerosis. Circulation. 2002;105:1135–43.
- Erlund I, Kol R, Alfthan G, et al., Favourable effects of berry consumption on platelet function, blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87:323–31. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18258621/
- Matsunaga N, Tsuruma K, Shimazawa M, Yokota S, Hara H. Inhibitory actions of bilberry anthycyanidins on angiogenesis. Phytother Res. 2010;24:S42–7.
- Elisabetta B, Flavia G, Paolo F, Giorgio L, Attilio SG, Fiorella LS, Juri N. Nutritional profile and productivity of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) in different habitats of a protected area of the eastern Italian Alps. Journal of food science. 2013 May;78(5):C673-8.
- Bilberry. Mount Sinai Health Library.