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Bilberries: a nutritional powerhouse

Written by Monica Marian | Wednesday, 22 July 2020


You may not have heard of these mighty little berries, but bilberries are a nutritional powerhouse. A relative of blueberries (but a bit smaller), they can be eaten fresh, cooked or as an extract.

So what’s in bilberries?

Bilberries contain approximately 70 different polyphenolic compounds. The major polyphenolic class are the anthocyanins, which are pigments responsible for the dark blue colour and the antioxidant activity of the bilberries. In addition, the bilberry fruit also contains phenolic acids (70-80% of these being gallic acid), flavonols (e.g. myricetin, quercetin, laricitrin, syringetin, kaempferol), iridoids and stilbenes.

These berries also contain minerals like potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron and copper. ( please see ).

It is also rich in vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, E and provitamin A

The health benefits of bilberries

Research has been shown that bilberries and bilberry fruit extracts may have the following health benefits:

Assists with diarrhoea

Nonspecific (in neonates, children and adults) as well as specific (as seen in our observations of patients with bacterial dysentery as well as research done with other Gram negative and Gram positive strains), being recommended in inflammatory conditions of the small and large intestine. The tannins in blueberries cause the agglutination of bacteria in the intestinal tract, explaining the antiseptic and anti-diarrheic effect, whereas the astringent properties of tannins explain the antihemorrhagic effect seen in dysentery or other inflammatory bowel disorders, like ulcerative colitis. Myrtilline from berries enters the cells of pathogenic bacteria interfering with bacterial cell vitality.

Bilberry extract appears to balance the osmotic pressure at the level of intestinal epithelial cells, slowing down peristalsis. Through its astringent, bacteriostatic, antihistaminic, adsorptive properties may support the repair of the intestinal mucosa. Optimises the pH in the colon into a mild acidic one, making it unfavourable for the growth of pathogenic bacteria or parasites like Giardia. Bilberries appear to also have anti-ulcer properties.

Beneficial action on the health of capillaries

This is done through improving vascular elasticity and reducing hyperpermeability of capillaries in persons with venous insufficiency, arteriopathies (impaired circulation in legs, heart, eyes and brain – like in vascular disorders associated with senescence), as supportive therapies. They may also prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

Diabetes, especially type 1

Specifically where there has been a destruction in the beta cells of the pancreas, through the regenerative action on these insulin secreting cells. Glucosides of delphinol, myrtilline and neo-myrtilline have been shown to have hypoglycaemiant effect, improving both fasting as well as postprandial glycaemia. Therefore, they could be helpful in association with insulin therapy or oral hypoglycaemiants in improving glycaemic control and reducing the complications of diabetes (eye lesions, heart lesions, cerebral lesions, and vascular complications in legs).

Eye health

May promote eye health through a rejuvenating effect on retinal cells, improving vision. An Italian study has shown the possible effect in reducing the progression of cataract, in combination with vitamin E.

Improved symptoms of dysmenorrhea

Another study has shown that a bilberry extract has improved symptoms of dysmenorrhea if used for eight days, commencing in the three days preceding the onset of period. Bioflavonoids and extracts of anthocyanosides have been shown to induce relaxation of vascular smooth muscles in animal models. One can speculate that the effect on dysmenorrhea might be explained also through the antihistaminic and plasma magnesium enhancing effect of bilberry extracts.

Breast health

Promising beneficial effects have been shown in the fibrocystic breast disease.

Possible anticancer effects

An exciting discovery was the anticancer effect of bilberries and blueberries through an inhibition of cancer cell proliferation and induction of apoptosis in certain cancer cells lines like colon, breast, leukemia, etc. Regular intake of berries could be helpful for preventing cancer development and supporting cancer patients after treatment. Due to their strong antioxidant properties, they have been shown to reduce heart complications induced by chemotherapeutic agents like Doxorubicin, as well as could be helpful in patients who develop diarrhoea post radiation therapy. Some integrative oncology practitioners recommend their patients to eat one cup of defrosted blueberries and/or bilberries daily (the defrosted berries are recommended bearing in mind an easier digestive absorption of active principles, especially if the gut function is compromised). Note: defrosting must not involve microwaving!

Where can you get bilberries?

In Australia bilberries are available in frozen form, usually mixed with other imported berries, as well as preserved as jams, syrups and compote imported from Sweden, Poland or possibly other European countries. A close relative of bilberries are the wild blueberries which grow in North America (USA and Canada) and are easier to find in frozen form in Australia.

Monica Marian

I graduated from the Faculty of General Medicine in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, in 1992 and worked as an intern doctor and then as a registrar doctor in paediatrics.

Soon after my migration to Adelaide in 1998, I had the privilege to meet some very knowledgeable practitioners in complementary medicine and Ayurveda. They helped me discover the beauty of complementary medicine through looking at each person as unique individuals with unique stories, unique problems, unique treatment approaches and unique healing journeys. .

In 2016 I returned to an old love, nutritional medicine, after graduating from a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional Medicine) at Endeavour College of Natural Health and since 2018 I have been lecturing in clinical nutritional medicine at Endeavour College - Adelaide Campus.

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