The Health Benefits of Bilberry
Written By: Haseeb Ashraf, M.D.
Bilberry is a shrubby plant which bears edible fruits and is related to the family of cranberry fruits. It grows primarily in Europe, Northern Asia and North America.
The plant has been used for centuries in traditional European medicine. The berries were called black hearts, according to Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel, The Return of the Native. It is also mentioned in a story of World War II RAF pilots consuming bilberry jam to improve their night vision. However, no recent evidence can be found in support to this historical anecdote. German doctors prescribed the bilberry for intestinal conditions in the 18th century. Commission E, the German panel of experts that assesses the safety and effectiveness of herbs, approved the use of bilberry extract for diarrhea and inflammation of the mouth or throat in the year 1987.
Bilberry as a Medicine
The body undergoes oxidative stress which results in the production of free radical molecules. Eating foods that are rich in antioxidants such as bilberries is important because antioxidants help reduce the harmful effects caused by free radical molecules. Anthocyanosides, giving a deep color to the bilberry fruit, and its related compounds has been a source of inspiration for the scientists due to its effective anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Bilberries also contains tannins, possessing potential antimicrobial properties. Let’s explore what the modern scientific evidence has to say about the benefits of bilberries.
Vasoprotective and Anti-Inflammatory Activity
Studies have shown anthocyanides to have potent anti-inflammatory and vasoprotective properties. Due to these properties it has been proven to be beneficial in conditions caused by inflammation. A Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides preparation (equivalent to 25% of anthocyanidins) demonstrated significant vasoprotective and anti-oedema properties in experimental models.
Anthocyanosides and Hypertension
Flavonoids in the Bilberry fruits possess the ability to reduce vascular permeability due to which it can be used to inhibit the permeability-increasing action of hypertension.
Bilberry and Coronary Vascular Disease Risk
Bilberry juice modulates plasma concentration of NF-kappa-B related inflammatory markers in subjects at increased risk of CVD. NF-kappa-B, in some studies has been show to influence C-reactive protein activity, which is a well known prognostic factor for coronary artery disease. Due to these anti-inflammatory properties, it can modulate the inflammation process reducing the risk of coronary vascular disease.
Polyphenols and Cancer
Considerable amount of evidence indicates that the origin of cancer is related to inflammation. Nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappa B), a master regulator of infection and inflammation, has been identified as a key modulator in which inflammation could develop into cancer. Therefore, as demonstrated above Anthocyanosides (a polyphenol, found in the bilberry) might play a significant role in reducing the incidence and risk of cancer.
Bilberry and Metabolic Diseases like Obesity and Diabetes in Women
Dietary habits share a major burden and a pivotal role in obesity, type 2 diabetes and atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases. A study comparing the effects different berries on metabolic diseases showed that bilberries (BB) have various but slightly positive effects on the associated variables of metabolic diseases. It demonstrated following properties 1- Decrease in waist circumference. 2- Small decrease in weight. 3- Decreased vascular cell adhesion molecules. 4- Decrease in intercellular adhesion molecules (ICAM).
Bilberry and Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is commonly associated with obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia and type 2 diabetes, and can thus be regarded as the hepatic manifestation of metabolic syndrome. A study was conducted in which lifestyle changes only were compared with the intervention with northern berries. The 23% decrease in the ALAT value was found in the berry group which may be regarded as nutritionally significant by enhancing the liver function.
Bilberry and Diabetes
New dietary solutions are required to improve glucose and lipid metabolism in persons at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, due to its rapidly growing incidence. A study compared the effects of bilberry along with whole grain products and fish, on glucose and lipid metabolism. Results showed that such a diet improves glucose and lipid metabolism and therefore, may play a beneficial role in efforts to decrease the incidence of type 2 diabetes in high risk population. Another study observed the effects of bilberry combined with fish oil and lutein on subjective symptoms of stiff shoulder, low back pain, frustration and dry eyes, termed as asthenopia. Results showed improvement in above mentioned symptoms. Therefore conclusively, list of conditions in which Bilberry can exert its beneficial effects are as follows;
Molecular Nutrition Food Res: Bilberries reduce low-grade inflammation in individuals with features of metabolic syndrome