There’s a new buzz in the health world about another member of the berry family. Make way for the lowly bilberry.
Today, health food and natural supplement stores carry distilled and extracted versions on their shelves, claiming a host of health benefits.
Known in the botanical world as Vaccinium Myrtillus, the bilberry is a shrub that thrives in the acidic soil and colder temperature of temperate and subarctic regions like Norway, Sweden and Russia, and can be difficult to cultivate in warmer areas. It has resemblance to its cousins, the blueberry and the huckleberry, but its fruit are smaller with a darker, near black hue and instead of growing in usual clusters, bilberry either comes in singles or in pairs. Its fruit pulp is heavily staining red or purple, instead of the usual light green from other berry families.
A key component of the bilberry is its anthocyanin content, which gives the fruit its color. Anthocyanins are established antioxidants that are said to have a role in preventing atherosclerosis and stress-induced liver damage. Anthocyanins act as antioxidants and fight free radicals and also offer anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer benefits. In herbal medicine, anthocyanin-rich substances have long been used to treat a number of conditions such as high blood pressure, colds, and urinary tract infections.
Billberry can be used in jams, juices and pies. It is also a popular flavoring for desserts and liquors.
In medical tradition, the fruit of a bilberry has been used for diarrhea and scurvy, and the leaves can be boiled and drank as tea for people with diabetes. During the World war II, bilberry is said to be the secret weapon of the members of the members of the Royal Air Force in their night mission – having said to have given them sharper vision at night. Though this urban legend hasn’t been backed up by much clinical trials and studies, bilberry is currently being used to treat diarrhea, dysmenorrhea, eye problems, and diseased blood vessels.
Further research is being done and it proves to be promising. In these studies, a liver-protective effect has been observed in mice, as well as increased levels of antioxidants, glutathione and Vitamin C. Bilberry also shows promise in the treatment of inflammation, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and degenerative diseases and these are currently being explored.
The fruit can be eaten as is and its leaves can be brewed as tea. You will find supplements made from its fruit and leaves in health stores. Both fruits and leaves have been made into extracts, packed in capsules and tablets and marketed as nutritional supplements.
Eating the fruit has not been associated with any adverse reactions, but the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US warns that there have been no investigations to establish billberry’s long term safety and side effects. If you intend to take it as a supplement, it’s best to consult your physician first.