What is Bilberry Extract?
Bilberries are a shrub bearing edible fruit native to Northern Europe and found throughout Eurasia. As a species, it is known as Vaccinium myrtillus. The name bilberry comes from the word bølle, the Danish word for whortleberry appended with ‘berry’. They bear a striking similarity to the North American blueberry, as they belong to the same genus Vaccinium. Bilberries are difficult to cultivate, as they thrive best in acidic and nutrient-poor soil. A significant portion of bilberries collected for sale come from the plentiful wild shrubs that grow on public soil.
Bilberry has had historic uses in traditional European medicine for nearly 1000 years. Reported uses date back as far as the early 12th century. Herbalists and physicians of the 16th century used it for a variety of ailments, including intestinal ailments; infections of the mouth, skin, and urinary tract; gout; and rheumatism. By the 20th century, individuals used bilberry extract as an anti-inflammatory, an anti-diarrheal, a diuretic, a cooling and restorative nutritive tonic, and a coagulator. Herbal remedies called for a strong tea made by steeping one-to-two tablespoons of dried bilberry fruit in five ounces of water for at least 10 minutes.
Modern uses reflect what traditional folk medicinal uses initially uncovered. By 1987, Germany approved bilberry decoctions for relieving diarrhea and inflammation of mucous membranes in the mouth and throat. Canada followed suit in 2008 and approved a 10% bilberry decoction for the same purposes.
Bilberries are a rich natural source of anthocyanins, the most likely source for their therapeutic properties.
What are Anthocyanins?
Anthocyanins are water-soluble flavonoids that give bilberries their blue-black color and rich antioxidant content. The name derives from the Greek words anthos, meaning ‘flower’, and kyaneos/kyanous, meaning ‘dark blue.’ Anthocyanin’s antioxidant properties may confer several health benefits, as it acts as an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and may help balance cholesterol.
Bilberry vs Blueberry
Bilberries bear many similarities to blueberries, but they have several obvious differences. Blueberries grow in clusters, whereas bilberries grow as a single berry or in pairs. Bilberries have a smooth and circular outline, whereas blueberries have star-shaped flaps. The inner pulp of blueberries is a light green color compared to the red-ish purple pulp of bilberries. Bilberries are also softer and juicier than blueberries. However, this makes them much more susceptible to damage. As a result, only gourmet stores or farmers’ markers offer fresh bilberries. Both fruits are rich in anthocyanins.
Bilberry Benefits + Anthocyanin Benefits
Bilberry for Vision
Bilberries are nutrient-rich and packed full of antioxidants. The most popular purported benefit is for improving vision. While the basis for this comes from myth, modern science has substantiated some of this claim. One study found that anthocyanins enhanced visual function by roughly 30%, while the placebo group’s vision worsened slightly.
Bilberry Extract as an Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory
Bilberry extract may reduce inflammation, thanks to the antioxidant properties of their anthocyanin content. One study noted that bilberry supplement reduced markers of inflammation by up to 60% compared to the placebo’s meager 4-6% reduction. Another study provided participants with bilberry juice and confirmed its anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants also help fight free radical damage, which can increase the risk of several health conditions.
Bilberry for Heart Health
Bilberry may promote heart health in a few ways. It helps prevent the breakdown of carbs in the gut, which can help lower blood sugar. Anthocyanins also promote insulin secretion to help pull sugar from the blood into cells. Another study confirmed bilberry extract’s ability to influence blood sugar levels. Bilberries are rich in vitamin K, which reduces the risk of multiple heart ailments. Bilberry anthocyanins may also help balance good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol for better heart health.
Other Bilberry Benefits
Bilberry extract has a number of other beneficial properties. It helps relieve diarrhea and its relative inflammation in the colon. It also has anti-microbial properties against bacteria that cause salmonella and staph infections. It also has the potential to enhance long-term and working memory.
Bilberry Extract Side Effects
Consuming typical amounts of bilberry berry extract is generally safe for most individuals. However, individuals taking blood thinners or medications to lower their blood sugar should consult with a healthcare physician before taking bilberry supplements.
- Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, eds. Klein S, Rister RS, trans. The Complete German Commission E Monographs—Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
- Morazzoni P, E Bombardelli. Vaccinium myrtillus L. Fitoterapia. 1996;67(1):329.
- http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/alt_formats/ hpfb-dgpsa/pdf/prodnatur/mono_bilberry-myrtille-eng.pdf
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