Bilberry's original fame came in the form of a spread. Bilberry jam was a favorite of British pilots during WWII, who felt that it aided their vision at night. Turns out, they were onto something, as the fruit has since been linked to visual health.
Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus, contains vitamins belonging to the anthocyanin group. These nutrients are actually found in many fruits and vegetables and contribute to a food's color. Though soldiers of the past thought otherwise, research does not support bilberry's ability to aid night vision [Source: Muth, Zadok, Canter]. Studies showed that its effect was minimal, though some feel the dosage used was inadequate.
The fruit has shown benefits fighting toxicity, contains powerful health nutrients, and may have other benefits for the eyes. Bilberries' anthocyanins are known to help strengthen capillaries, tiny blood vessels. Keeping the walls of these vessels strong ensures good blood flow throughout the body, including the eyes and brain. Bilberry may be better suited to help with cataracts and macular degeneration. Animal research has shown that it can block the effects of aging in the eye [Source: Fursova].
Bilberry also contains the important nutrients quercetin and resveratrol. The latter is rapidly becoming one of the more recognized supplements for optimal aging programs. Nutrients in bilberry, like resveratrol, quercetin and anthocyanins, are thought to protect against free radical damage [Source: Hou]. Multiple studies have documented bilberry's protection against toxin damage, specifically from potassium bromate, an additive commonly found in baked goods [Source: Bao, Choi].
This protection against free radicals and toxin exposure may qualify bilberry as part of a nutritional cancer prevention program. Indeed, scientists are investigating it as part of an anticancer team of supplements [Source: Hou]. Bilberry can be helpful in protecting against damage from radiation (in a topical form, with the detoxifier glutathione) as part of a chemotherapy regimen [Source: Miko]. This means it may protect against the damage to cells that leads to cancer, and help patients better tolerate cancer treatments.
This nutrient appears to be very safe, with no specific drug interactions reported. Bilberry is typically, and best, used in conjunction with other vitamins. Diabetics may receive vision improvement from bilberry since they are prone to damage of the tiny capillary vessels that feed the eye. For others, vitamin A might be best, particularly for improving night vision.
When looking for a bilberry supplement for the eye, choose one that also includes 10-20 mg lutein and 1-2 mg zeaxanthin. Patients should target 80-160 mg daily. Those seeking prevention of eye disease, or just protection of the cells, can target 40-80 mg daily in combination with other antioxidant vitamins or in fruit combinations, such as blueberry/bilberry/raspberry.
In what forms are bilberries sold and are some better than others?
The bilberry is closely related to the North American blueberry. It appears similar in color and is said to be similar in taste as well. The most common form is jam, but it can be hard to come by.
Like all nutritional supplements, it is probably best to eat the whole fruit rather than extracts or parts. But because bilberries are not common, the extract used in supplements may be the only way to get it.