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Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

During World War II, British RAF pilots noted the curious fact that their night vision improved after eating bilberry jam.  Their anecdotal reports sparked scientific research into this herb, which today is used to treat a wide range of visual disorders and other complaints.

What it is?

Although the fruit of the bilberry bush has been enjoyed since prehistoric times, its first recorded medicinal use was not until the sixteenth century.  Historically, dried berry or leaf preparations were recommended for a variety of conditions, including scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency),, urinary tract infections and kidney stones.

A relative of the blueberry, bilberry is a short, shrubby perennial that grows in the forests and wooded meadows of Northern Europe.  Bushes of these sweet blue-black berries are also found in western Asia and the Rocky Mountains of North America.  The medically active components in the ripe fruit consist primarily of flavonoids compounds known as anthocyanosides.  Accordingly, the modern medicinal form of bilberry is an extract containing a highly concentrated amount of these compounds.

What it does?

Many of the medicinal qualities of bilberry derive from its major constituents, anthocyanosides, which are potent antioxidants.  These compounds help to counteract cell damage caused by unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals.

Major Benefits

Bilberry extract is the leading herbal remedy for maintaining healthy vision and managing various eye disorders.  In particular, bilberry helps the retina (the light-sensitive portion of the eye) to adapt properly to both darkness and light.  It has been widely used to treat night blindness, as well as poor vision resulting from daytime glare.  With its ability to strengthen tiny blood vessels (capillaries) – and, in turn, facilitate the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the eyes – bilberry may also play a significant role in preventing and treating degenerative diseases of the retina (retinopathy).  In one study, 31 patients were treated with bilberry extract daily for four weeks.  Use of the extract fortified the capillaries and reduced haemorrhaging in the eyes, especially in cases of diabetes-related retinopathy.

Bilberry is also useful for preventing macular degeneration (a progressive disorder affecting the central part of the retina) and cataracts (loss of transparency of the eye's lens) – two leading causes of vision loss in older people.  A study of 50 patients with age-related cataracts found that bilberry extract combined with vitamin E supplements inhibited cataract formation in almost all of the participants.  Because it can strengthen collagen – the abundant protein that forms the 'backbone' of healthy connective tissues – bilberry may also be valuable in preventing and treating glaucoma, a disease caused by excessive pressure within the eye.

Additional Benefits

Because the anthocyanosides in bilberry improve blood flow in capillaries, as well as in larger blood vessels, bilberry in standardized extract form may be worthwhile for people with poor circulation in their extremities.  It's helpful for varicose veins and for the pain and burning of haemorrhoids, particularly during pregnancy (when these conditions can be quite troublesome).  People who bruise easily may also benefit from bilberry's salutary effect on capillaries.

Although more study is needed, limited data indicate that bilberry may have another uses as well.  One study showed that long-term use of bilberry extract improved the vision of normally nearsighted people – although how it produced this effect is unknown.  Preliminary results in women show that bilberry helps to treat menstrual cramps because anthocyanosides relax smooth muscle, including the uterus.  And animal studies suggest that bilberry anthocyanosides may fight stomach ulcers.

Common Uses

  • Maintains healthy vision and improves night vision and poor visual adaption to bright light.
  • Treats a wide array of eye disorders, including diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and macular degeneration.
  • Relieves varicose veins and haemorrhoids, especially in pregnancy.


  • Tablet.
  • Capsule.
  • Soft gel.
  • Tincture.
  • Dried herb/tea.


  • Reminder:  If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


Normal dosages range from 40 mg to 160 mg of bilberry extract two or three times a day.  The lower dose is generally recommended for long-term use, including the prevention of macular degeneration.  Higher doses – up to 320 mg a day – may be needed by those with diabetes.

Guidelines for use:

Bilberry can be taken with or without food.  No adverse effects have been noted in pregnant or breast-feeding women who use the herb.  In addition, there are no known adverse interactions with prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

Possible side effects

At therapeutic doses, bilberry appears to be very safe and has no known side effects, even when taken long term.

Facts and Tips

  • In Europe, bilberry is commonly recommended as part of conventional medical therapy, particularly for eye disorders.  German doctors also prescribe bilberry tea for the relief of diarrhoea.  To make the tea, pour a cup of very hot water over 1 or 2 tablespoons of dried whole berries (or 2 or 3 teaspoons of crushed berries); steep for 10 minutes and strain.  You can drink up to three cups of bilberry tea a day.  The tea can also be cooled and used as a gargle to treat mouth and throat inflammations.

Shopping Hints

  • When buying bilberry, choose an extract standardized to contain 2.5 % anthocyanosides, the active ingredients in the herb.  (It's one particular type of anthocyanoside, called anthocyanidin, that determines this standardized dose.)  Standardized extracts help assure that you get the same amount of active compounds in each dose.

Did you know?
Bilberry extracts contain between 100 and 250 times the amount of active ingredients (anthocyanosides) found in fresh bilberries)