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.
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.
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.
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.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), is one of many members of the Ericaceae (heath) family, along with blueberries, cranberries and bearberries (uva ursi). It is particularly closely related to blueberries.
It is 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, approximately 30-40 cm high with erect, branched flowering stems. Its leaves start as a rose colour, they then turn yellow-green and eventually become a deep red in the autumn. The leaves are very small and ‘leathery’ to the touch and its flowers are a light pink colour and bell shaped, the fruit are a dark purple and similar in size and shape to a blueberry.
- Black whortle
- Dyeberry (Eng)
- Heidelbeere (Ger)
- Myrtille (Fr)
- Myrtillo (Ital)
No significant adverse effects from taking bilberry are expected, although a small minority of people may irritate the intestinal lining.
- Fresh or dried berries
- Dried powdered
The equivalent of 3 g fresh bilberries two to four times per day.
Liquid extract (1:1): Take 3-6ml per day
- Anthocyanins – blue pigments responsible for the colour of the ripe fruits.
- Condensed tannins
- Oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs – including procyanidin B1, B4)
- catechin, epicatechin
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.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status Bilberry has been assessed in Europe and is currently classed as Least Concern.
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.