The Health Benefits of Bilberry Fruit and Leaves

What Medical Science Research Has to Say About This Famously Healthy Fruit

Person holding bilberries
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Bilberry fruit, also known as whortleberry or huckleberry, comes from the species Vaccinium myrtillus, which is a shrub native to much of Europe, northern Asia, and parts of western Canada and the United States. The plant that is similar to the American blueberry, which explains in part its other colloquial name, the European blueberry.

Bilberry fruit has been widely used in traditional European medicine for more than 1,000 years, but it also has a long culinary history of use in recipes similar to those that use blueberries like pies, jams, syrups, and other berry fruit desserts.

So just what are the health benefits of bilberries? There are some differing opinions.

Bilberry Uses and Health Benefits

The bilberry plant has been used to treat a variety of health conditions from poor eyesight and night vision to scurvy (a condition once common among sailors because of the lack of fresh fruit and, specifically, vitamin C while at sea). These days, the bilberry is used for many health issues, including diarrhea, menstrual cramps, and circulation problems. The leaf of the bilberry plant also is sometimes used to aid in the treatment of diabetes due to its reported ability to lower blood glucose levels.

Today, bilberries are mainly known for their extremely high concentration of anthocyanins, which are members of the flavonoid group of phytochemicals. In fact, bilberries are one of the best natural sources of these powerhouse compounds. These flavonoids, along with a high concentration of antioxidants, are believed to be the sources behind the bilberry's many claimed health benefits.

But do bilberries actually have disease-fighting power?

What Research Has to Say About Bilberry

Like many natural and herbal medicines, there hasn't been a lot of investment (monetary or otherwise) in clinical research about the health benefits of bilberry. In fact, most knowledge about the use of bilberry stems from research on similar antioxidants or from test tube experiments and animal studies.

Chances are it does some good, much like the blueberry, but to what extent is the question in many researcher's minds. Early research has suggested that bilberry extract can improve the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a circulation disorder. Other studies have concluded that the bilberry fruit appears to improve problems with the retina that are associated with other diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

Ultimately, more than one set of studies and research papers has concluded that while the molecular effects of bilberry that have been shown in experimental studies, more human trials testing the effects of standardized bilberry extract are still required. Though the results of current bilberry research is promising, it will take several more well-designed studies before there is sufficient evidence to inform the formation of recommendations for conventional medical applications.

The Bottom Line

No matter what bilberry research is published next. like other dark berries, the bilberry is a fruit that is good for you as a healthy part of your diet.

As long as you stick to eating the fruit as Europeans have for centuries, there haven’t been any side effects reported. That said, be careful of bilberry leaf tea and extracts made from the bilberry leaf as they may contain toxins that you don’t want in your body in high doses.

To get a little bilberry into your healthy diet, consider using the fruit in healthy cucumber and berry juice.

Sources:

Chu, Wing-kwan, Sabrina C. M. Cheung, and Roxana A. W. Lau. "Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus L.)." Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. Ed. Iris F. F. Benzie. 2nd ed. N.p.: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Herbs at a Glance.

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