Don’t get confused—bilberries might sound like blueberries, but they’re different than the tiny little blue gems we put in our yogurt, smoothies and oatmeal. "Bilberries are sometimes referred to as European blueberries as they come from a small shrub in Europe, related to blueberries," says Kelly Jones, RD. "But while they may resemble blueberries at first look, their flavor profile is much more acidic."
The plant is native to Northern Europe, including the UK and Iceland; it was later introduced to North America by European colonists, although there are relatives of the bilberry plant (like blueberries and huckleberries) native to the U.S. Due to their acidity, they were traditionally used to dye linens for clothing and household uses, Jones says. The plant also has a long history of medicinal uses dating back to the Middle Ages. Today, it's typically used as a dietary supplement—although you can certainly eat it if you can find it.
However, there are very few clinical trials of bilberry on humans, making it hard to scientifically confirm its benefits. But from what we do know, the plant certainly has promise when it comes to supporting overall health. Here's what to know.
5 potential bilberry benefits for overall health and well-being
1. They lower inflammation
Bilberries are believed to fight inflammation, says Jamie Bacharach, DiplAc, a licensed herbal medicine practitioner and acupuncturist at the Acupuncture Jerusalem Clinic. This is likely thanks to their high concentration of antioxidants, aka compounds that fight inflammatory damage from free radical compounds. One small study found that taking 300 milligrams of anthocyanins—plant compounds with antioxidant properties—extracted from bilberries and black currants over a three-week period helped reduce levels of several inflammatory biomarkers.
2. They can support cardiovascular health
Since bilberries are rich in antioxidants, they also may support heart health. “They offer polyphenol anthocyanins, phytochemicals that provide the rich blue color, but also are linked to improved inflammatory responses," says Jones. Those compounds may also prevent blood clotting, as well as help lower blood pressure, adds Bacharach—which not only promotes heart health but also reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. "However, [bilberries] are most often consumed as an extract in supplement form, which increases potency of the antioxidants," Jones says—meaning that just eating the straight berries might not be as protective.
3. They might help with diabetes management
Some preliminary studies imply bilberry extract could benefit people with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (although more research is needed), likely because the antioxidants help reduce inflammation associated with the disease. “Bilberries have been shown to reduce blood sugar while stimulating insulin secretion, thereby proving useful for diabetics,” Bacharach adds.
4. They can support immune system health
Due to the antioxidant content and vitamin C content of bilberries, they can help keep your immune system in tip-top shape. “Bilberry may also have antimicrobial benefits. In general, the high anthocyanin content is its largest benefit, as these compounds aid in antioxidant systems to protect the body's cells from stress,” Jones says. And stress can have huge impacts on your body's ability to fight off sickness.
5. Bilberries are good for your eyes
Bilberry can support eye health and aid in ocular circulation. Specifically, “bilberries have been found to improve the vision of glaucoma patients, in addition to proving capable of reducing eye strain,” says Bacharach.
Are there any downsides to bilberries?
Bilberries (or bilberry extract) may interact with diabetes medications or blood thinners, which is extremely important to note considering it is often promoted to those with diabetes and heart disease, says Jones. Additionally, there is insufficient research proving safety for pregnant women and children, adds Bacharach, so steer clear.
Other than that, it's important to be transparent with your physician about any supplements you are taking, and focus on an overall healthy diet and lifestyle rather than relying on supplements like this long-term.
How to consume bilberries to reap the benefits
Bilberries can be eaten, but aren't as commonplace in grocery stores as their blueberry cousins. Some retailers do sell them—just be prepared to pay quite a bit more than you would for other berries. (Prices online range from $21 for 4 ounces to $68 for 1 pound, and they're typically shipped from Europe.) “Therefore, bilberries are usually ingested in pill form in which they are available at most online or in-person health stores,” says Bacharach. (They're also sold in powder form.)
As with any supplement you purchase, it's important that you trust the company and check that they have rigorous testing in place. They should be transparent about what ingredients are in the vitamin and where they're sourced from—ideally publishing that information on their website. An easy way to vet quality is to see if they have third-party quality labels, such as USP Verified Mark and Good Manufacturing Practices.
“Bilberry is most often recommended in 80 to 100 milligram doses," says Jones. (She likes NOW Bilberry Complex, $30 for 100 capsules.) However, Bacharach says anyone interested in trying the supplement should speak to an herbalist or doctor to get the right dose for you. “In terms of dosage, it would depend entirely on the makeup and specifics of the patient in question. As such, an herbalist or doctor should be consulted before self-prescribing,” she says.
The bottom line: Bilberries have lots of promising potential benefits. But don't go out of your way to try and get your hands on them—there are lots of other, more proven (and affordable) ingredients that can also support your overall health.
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