The bilberry plant is a leafy perennial shrub that is native to northern Europe, the northern United States, and Canada. The plant produces a purple-black fruit similar to the American blueberry that ripens from July through September. The name comes from a Danish word that means "dark berry."
Bilberry is related to blueberry and has a long history of use in medicine. The dried fruit has been used for diarrhea, mucus membrane inflammation, and eye disorders such as poor night vision, eyestrain, and nearsightedness. Bilberry is also used as a food to make jams, pies, cobblers, syrups, and beverages. Fruit extracts are also used to color wines.
Bilberry fruit and extract contain compounds called anthocyanosides that are thought to have possible health benefits. Bilberry extract has been studied for its effects as an antioxidant, as well as for benefits in lowering blood sugar, inflammation, and cholesterol. Although early evidence is promising, there is a lack of support for or against the use of bilberry at this time. The available evidence suggests that bilberry may lack benefit for night vision improvement.
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Select combination products: Difrarel® (comprised of 100 milligrams of bilberry extract and 5 milligrams of beta-carotene), Focus (comprised of 50 milligrams of bilberry extract including 12.5 milligrams of anthocyanidin, 2 milligrams of lutein, 1 milligram of lycopene, 3 milligrams of beta-carotene, 0.5 milligrams of vitamin A, 1.7 milligrams of vitamin B2, 70 milligrams of vitamin C, 10 milligrams of vitamin E, and 15 milligrams of zinc), Medox® (comprised of purified anthyocyanins isolated from bilberries and blackcurrant), Mirtogenol™ (comprised of 40 milligrams Pycnogenol®, French maritime pine bark extract, and 80 milligrams of Mirtoselect®, a standardized bilberry extract).
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Age-related macular degeneration
Focus, a product that contains bilberry, has been studied for benefits in people who have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an eye disorder. Although early results are promising, more research is needed to determine the possible effects of bilberry alone.
Cataracts (clouding of eye lens)
Bilberry extract has been used for many eye disorders, including cataracts. It is thought that some compounds in bilberry may benefit people with cataracts. However, research is limited and often involves combination treatments. Further study is needed in this area.
Bilberry extract has been studied for chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a circulation disorder that may cause swelling, pain, itching, and ulcers in the legs. Early studies suggest that bilberry extract may have benefits in this disorder. However, more research is required before conclusions can be made.
Dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual symptoms)
There is limited evidence to support the use of bilberry in painful menstrual symptoms such as cramps, headache, nausea, and vomiting. It is thought that bilberry compounds may help relax smooth muscle and improve symptoms as a result. However, further study is needed before the use of bilberry can be supported for this purpose.
Early evidence suggests that taking bilberry extract with fish oils and lutein may help improve symptoms of eye strain. However, research is needed on the possible benefits of bilberry alone. Further study is needed in this field.
Fibrocystic breast disease
There is early evidence suggesting a possible benefit of bilberry in treating fibrocystic breast disease, a condition in which the breast tissue feels lumpy. More study is needed before firm conclusions can be made.
One study has looked at the use of compounds from bilberry, cranberries, and grape seed in people who have fibromyalgia. Early findings suggest that these compounds may improve sleep, fatigue, and general health. Although promising, more research is needed on the effect of bilberry alone.
High pressure in the eyes is thought to be a risk factor for glaucoma. One study reports that Mirtogenol
Heart disease (risk)
Early human evidence suggests that compounds in berries such as bilberry may benefit people who have high cholesterol, blood sugar disorders, or metabolic disorder. However, the available research has looked at treatments involving multiple berries, including bilberries used with black currants. Other studies have looked at the use bilberries in combination with other foods. There is some evidence that these treatments may benefit body weight, waist circumference, inflammation, insulin, and blood sugar. Though promising, more information is needed on the use of bilberries alone.
Early human research suggests that bilberry may help reduce inflammation. However, most available research has looked at the use of combination treatments involving various berries. More information on the effects of bilberry alone is needed before conclusions can be made.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Early evidence suggests that a combination containing powdered bilberry fruit may help improve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. However, further high-quality studies are needed to determine the possible benefit of bilberry alone.
Retinopathy (diabetic eye disease)
More research is still needed on the effectiveness of bilberry in treating diabetic eye disease. Early animal studies suggest that an extract of bilberry may have benefit as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. More information is needed before conclusions can be made on the use of bilberry for this condition.
Early studies in the 1960s and 1970s suggested a benefit of bilberry on night vision. However, recent research has failed to demonstrate effect. Two reviews reported inconsistent findings. The available evidence suggests a lack of benefit for this purpose. Without more positive evidence from high-quality studies, the use of bilberry products for night vision may not be considered scientifically supported.