Are Bilberries Right for you?

Are Bilberries Right for you?
Mike Stuchiner
Master Herbalist

When we think of berries what often comes to mind are the more common ones which satisfy our taste buds like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. These wonderful foods bring a lot to the table nutritionally and provide a great amount of protection and nourishment. There are many unsung heroes of the berry family which provide a unique nutritional profile and may bring a potentially greater level of protection and nourishment to the body than your more common berries. I believe bilberries are one of more underrated and under used foods when looking to bring a superior level of nourishment to the vascular system and visual health. Bilberries have a log and wonderful history as a medicinal food.

Legend had it that both british and american pilots during world war 2 discovered that by eating bilberry jam the night before a mission saw great improvement in there night vision. Historically bilberries have been used by herbalists to support a healing response for everything from kidney issues, vascular and blood vessel abnormalities to chronic diarrhea. and it is well documented that the compounds found in bilberries may support the health of the vascular system. This specific action may also provide the potential to support many areas of the body. This is what defines food as medicine.

Like many types of dark berries, one of the key players in providing its protective benefits are the high levels of quality antioxidants specifically anthocyanins. In my last article i discussed the amazing benefits of these powerful purple pigments. Here is a quick refresher. Flavonoids are the largest family of polyphenolic compounds and anthocyanins are a subclass of flavonoids. Plants produce flavonoids as a protection against parasites, injuries, and harsh climate conditions. One study discussing specific aspects in regards to the mechanism of actions of anthocyanins, 2 specific actions were noted. “ The biochemical and histochemical data may show that the anthocyanosides protect the altered capillary walls with a double mechanism: a) increasing the endothelium barrier-effect through a stabilisation of the membrane phospholipids and b) increasing the biosynthetic processes of the acid mucopolysaccharides of the connective ground substance, by restoring the altered mucopolysaccharidic pericapillary sheat. This last effect may explain the marked increase of new-formed capillaries and collagen fibrils induced by the anthocyanosides”. (1) In simple terms these compounds were found to support the foundational aspects of the healing process.

But wait there’s more…………

Much like blueberries and grapes, bilberries do contain other powerful compounds like resveratrol. This compound is extremely well researched for its ability to not just possibly restore the body’s ability to produce healthy cells but, possibly prevent cell death based on its many mechanisms of action. One review about dose dependency specifically discussed how in many cases, a little bit really does go a long way. It was stated “Low doses resveratrol protect health from different types of diseases, while high doses resveratrol can be detrimental for health. However, high dose resveratrol may be required in pathological conditions”. (2)

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
When we look at the synergy of the compounds found in food, it is important to understand the mechanisms of action that take place from this powerful synergistic effect. It is also important not to look at this topic from a reductionist point of view. Remember, no one compound works alone. One of the major actions that take place from the synergy of polyphenolic compounds specifically found in bilberry fruit is to upregulate specific oxidative stress defense enzymes like heme-oxygenase-1 and glutathione S-transferase-pin.

One study discussed its protective effects in cultured human retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. The results showed “Preincubation with bilberry extract ameliorated the intracellular increase of H(2)O(2)-induced free radicals in RPE, though H(2)O(2) cytotoxicity was not affected. By 4 hours, the extract had upregulated HO-1 and GST-pi protein by 2.8- and 2.5-fold, respectively, and mRNA by 5.5- and 7.1-fold, respectively, in a dose-dependent manner. Anthocyanin and nonanthocyanin phenolic fractions contributed similarly to mRNA upregulation” and it was concluded “Anthocyanins and other phenolics from bilberry upregulate the oxidative stress defense enzymes HO-1 and GST-pi in RPE, suggesting that they stimulate signal transduction pathways influencing genes controlled by the antioxidant response element”. (3) In simple terms, the compounds found in bilberry are able to possibly reduce damage caused by oxidative stress based on its ability to upregulate specific stress defense enzymes.

Bilberries effects on inflammation
There are 2 specific anthocyanins (delphinidins and cyanidins) that seem to stand out in bilberry as being big players for why it may support a variety of healing responses in the body specifically on the inflammation cascade. Cyanidins have been looked at as being one of the most effective anthocyanin components as they have been shown to potentially have the greatest clinical significance of all anthocyanins. This subcomponent may also have the greatest uptake and lowest decay rate of all anthocyanins. Some of the suggested mechanisms bilberry has potentially shown to have on the inflammation cascade is possibly inhibiting proteasome activity (known to control the degradation of cellular proteins) and inhibiting nuclear factor κB (NF-κB) activation (which controls expression of genes involved in the inflammatory response).

One study on bilberries ability to reduce low grade inflammation levels with features of metabolic syndrome showed that bilberry is a food that can stand on its own. In this controlled diet intervention study the participants consumed a controlled diet or one rich in bilberries (around 400 g of fresh bilberry daily). It was found that the group who ate the bilberries saw a “decrease serum high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, IL-6, IL-12, and LPS concentrations” and it was therefore concluded, “Regular bilberry consumption may reduce low-grade inflammation indicating decreased cardiometabolic risk in the long term”. (4)
Nature provides us with everything we need to nourish our bodies. Bilberries are just one more example of how a simple food can provide the body with a unique nutritional profile of compounds that makes this little dark berry, a powerful addition to one’s daily consumption or medicine cabinet.


1)Mian E, Curri SB, Lietti A, Bombardelli E. 1977 “Anthocyanosides and the walls of the microvessels: further aspects of the mechanism of action of their protective effect in syndromes due to abnormal capillary fragility”., Sourced 7/25/18.

2)Subhendu Mukherjee, Jocelyn I. Dudley, and Dipak K. Das. 2010. “Dose-Dependency of Resveratrol in Providing Health Benefits”. Sourced 7/26/18

3)Milbury PE1, Graf B, Curran-Celentano JM, Blumberg JB. 2007. “Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) anthocyanins modulate heme oxygenase-1 and glutathione S-transferase-pi expression in ARPE-19 cells”. Sourced 7/25/18

4)Kolehmainen M1, Mykkänen O, Kirjavainen PV, Leppänen T, Moilanen E, Adriaens M, Laaksonen DE, Hallikainen M, Puupponen-Pimiä R, Pulkkinen L, Mykkänen H, Gylling H, Poutanen K, Törrönen R. 2012. “Bilberries reduce low-grade inflammation in individuals with features of metabolic syndrome”. Sourced 7/26/18