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Bilberries are a natural source of protective polyphenols against damage caused by the body’s inflammatory defences

Bilberry

Vaccinium myrtillus Ericaceae

Bilberry is seen as one of the leading sources of anthocyanins, the blue-purple pigment also found in blueberries, red grapes and other purple fruits.

  • How does it feel?

    If you cannot easily obtain fresh bilberries you can check blueberries. The first thing you will see is their intense blue-purple colour, due to their high levels of anthocyanins. These polyphenols (related to flavonoids) convey some of their most important benefits outlined below. When you taste the berries you will notice first their sharpness or ‘tartness’ (bilberries are even sharper than blueberries): this is induced by many health-giving constituents including vitamin C, anthocyanins and other polyphenols, phenols and condensed tannins. The last group also give the berries their puckering or astringent aftertaste.

  • What can I use it for?

    Bilberry is a traditional choice for congestion and fragility of veins and the peripheral circulation. It can be used as a long-term supplement for varicosed veins and haemorrhoids, slow-healing bruises, and heavy painful legs. It can be tried for poor peripheral circulation, including Raynaud’s syndrome, for broken capillaries showing on the skin, and for complications of diabetes and high blood pressure including in the retina.

    Bilberries will make a useful component of a diet for someone struggling with extra weight, especially around the middle, with too much carbohydrate or sugar consumption, or with other early pointers to diabetes (a state sometimes called insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome), perhaps with increasing intolerance to fatty foods and alcohol.

    In the case of dietary supplementation similar benefits can be had by eating more blueberries and other dark blue-purple berries. There is evidence that increasing the intake of all such berries in the diet can help maintain a healthy gut flora or microbiome, that such fruits are ‘prebiotic’.

    There is some evidence that bilberries may help with eye fatigue linked to working with computer screens.

  • Into the heart of Bilberry

    Bilberries are a natural source of protective polyphenols, protecting us from the damage caused by free radicals and the body’s inflammatory defences. These improve connective tissue repair generally, and have a specific action within the circulatory system. There is increased blood supply in the peripheral circulation. Importantly, the lining of the capillaries is where inflammation processes begin, so there is an important effect at the root of inflammatory damage. Bilberries are good for eye health and vision as boost blood and oxygen supply to the eyes.

  • Traditional uses

    Bilberry fruit has been used as an astringent healing remedy, topically for haemorrhoids and vaginal inflammations, and internally for diarrhoea, dysentery, and gastrointestinal inflammation. Described as an astringent and absorptive for a “hot” digestive tract, it was also commonly used to alleviate acute vomiting and general digestive upset. Topically, it was used as a mouthwash and gargle for inflammations and ulcerations of the mouth.

    It has a reputation for “drying up” breast milk. The fruit has also been used to treat scurvy (well-justified by its constituents), and like its relative the cranberry, for urinary complaints. Bilberry was also used in Europe to colour wine and to dye wool.

  • Traditional actions

    • Alterative
    • Antimicrobial
    • Antioxidant
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Astringent
    • Hepatoprotective
    • Immunomodulant
    • Laxative
    • Nervine
    • Trophorestorative
  • What practitioners say

    Cardiovascular system: Bilberry is nutritive and supportive of the entire circulatory system as it strengthens blood vessels. It is generally well-tolerated due to its pleasant taste.

    Bilberry is a prime choice for congestion and fragility of veins and the microcirculation. It is used in formulations for varicosed veins and haemorrhoids, slow-healing bruises, and heavy painful legs.

    Nervous system: Bilberry may be applied in instances where vision is impaired or reduced. Bilberry is also supportive in instances where there is damage to the nervous system due to hypertension and diabetes. This might manifest as retinopathy or retinal degeneration.

    Digestive system: Due to the pectin content of the berries, they can act as a bulk laxative. They also work as an astringent, as many herbs have both of these actions. It is said that the fresh berries are best for laxative effects, and the dried for diarrhoea.

  • Research

    Evidence over many decades points to a range of benefits for the health of the microcirculation and for improvement in venous and lymphatic drainage.

    Effects in reducing markers of inflammation have been noted in clinical research, with beneficial implications for gum disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. Bilberries were also shown to be associated with reduced inflammation in prediabetic conditions, improvements in insulin response after meals, and blood sugar control: all leading to recommendations for its consumption in diabetes.

    There are pointers to linked benefits for heart and circulatory health, for obesity, and for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (often associated with prediabetic states). Separate benefits in reducing cholesterol and blood fats have also been established in human studies.

    A range of research studies has suggested that bilberry assists vision, though with mixed clinical evidence.

  • Did you know?

    In the Second World War RAF pilots ate bilberry jam to improve their night vision.

Additional information

  • Safety

    No significant adverse effects from taking bilberry are expected, although a small minority of people may irritate the intestinal lining.

  • Preparation

    • Fresh or dried berries
    • Dried powdered
    • Capsules
    • Tincture
  • Dosage

    The equivalent of 3 g fresh bilberries two to four times per day.

    Liquid extract (1:1): Take 3-6ml per day

  • Constituents

    • Anthocyanins – blue pigments responsible for the colour of the ripe fruits.
    • Condensed tannins
    • Oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs – including procyanidin B1, B4)
    • Flavonoids
    • catechin, epicatechin
    • Pectins
  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) Sweet, astringent, sour
    • Virya (action) Cooling
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Sweet
    • Guna (quality) Light, dry, spreading
    • Dosha effect: strengthens kapha, and reduces pitta and vata
    • Dhatu (tissue)  blood and nervous tissue
    • Srotas (channels) circulatory, nervous, urinary
  • Habitat

    Bilberries are native to Europe, Asia and the Western states of the USA, but wild cultivars are now found across many temperate climates. It grows as a low shrub on moorland and mountain ranges.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status Bilberry has been assessed in Europe and is currently classed as Least Concern.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to supply herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific / botanical name. A supplier should also be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration where supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Although bilberries are wild shrubs, they can be cultivated. Bilberry can most easily be cultivated in cooler climates in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. If you are going to try bilberry growing in warm climates, shrubs need protecting from excess heat. 

    • It is best to buy container-raised bilberry seedlings. 
    • Generally, once these shrubs have successfully rooted in the ground, they prefer not to be disturbed. Like blueberries, bilberries thrive in acidic soil. 
    • A location with full sun in cooler areas, but opt for partial shade in warmer climates. Bilberries are very tolerant of wind, so shelter is not needed.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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