Are you berry healthy?
I recently took a little time out and spent a few hours exploring the beautiful Peak
District. I love this part of the world and feel privileged to live so close by. Only a
half hour drive from home and I’m in the open countryside filling my lungs with
wonderful fresh air! I’m a nature lover and passionate about health and well being.
More specifically, how nature provides us with an abundance of plants and edibles to support health. I also love observing what is growing around us locally and seasonally. In spring, I’m
always on the hunt for Wild Garlic and exciting new recipe ideas, then, in Summer & Autumn, i'm on the lookout for what fruits are available for gathering. My latest adventures in the Peak District had me stumbling across a mass of bilberry bushes bearing lots of fruit and after helping myself to one or two whilst strolling along, I remembered I had a spare bag with me so seized the opportunity to spend a little time bilberry picking, recalling many happy childhood memories of purple fingers and bilberry pies!
Not only do bilberries taste delicious they have a number of wonderful health benefits and are a worthy addition to a healthy balanced diet. And so, whilst they are in season, I thought I’d share some of these benefits and maybe inspire you to seize the moment and go on your own ‘Bilberry picking’ walk.
The bilberry plant is a low growing shrub native to Northern Europe and Asia, also known as European Blueberry, Whortleberry, Huckleberry and blaeberry and belongs to a large genus (vaccinium) of plants that also contain blueberry and cranberry. Bilberries are often referred to as blueberries due to their
similar appearance and are also close relatives, however, the ‘true’ blueberry is native to the United States. Bilberries have been used in traditional folklore medicine for over a thousand years and traditionally used to treat diarrhoea, scurvy (due to their vitamin c content) and other conditions.
Here in the UK, bilberry grows in heaths, meadows and moist coniferous forests. So why are these delicious little blue/black berries so good for us? Well, the answer lies with a number of compounds that are found abundantly in a variety of berries, however, bilberries are reported to have a higher
anthocyanin content compared to other berries such as strawberry, cranberry, elderberry, sour cherry and raspberry. Anthocyanins are potent ‘antioxidants’ (molecules that inhibit ‘oxidation’ a chemical reaction that may damage cells within the body). With this in mind we can see how bilberries may offer cellular protection but what additional reported health benefits do they bring?
Top Bilberry Benefits
1) Eye support
Bilberry has a long history of use for eye disorders and in promoting vision. There have been numerous studies of the effects of bilberry on various aspects of vision and ocular disorders, including cataract, retinopathy, macular degeneration, and night vision. As legend goes, bilberry was used by British
Royal Air Force pilots during World War II because it was believed that it improved their night vision whilst on flying missions
According to Wing-kwan Chu et al bilberry has a clear potential value as an antimicrobial agent with a preliminary study showing that bilberry had a direct effect against methicillin resistant S.Aureus (MRSA) whilst also potentiating the effects of vancomycin (an antibiotic) against MRSA. These are particularly
interesting and important findings for the use of bilberry in treating anti biotic resistant organisms in a time of increasing widespread anti biotic resistance.
3) Cholesterol lowering and Cardiovascular support
The amazing anthocyanosides found in bilberries may strengthen blood vessels and prevent the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, a major risk factor for atherosclerosis that is the plaque that blocks blood vessels leading to heart attack and stroke. A study reported that dietary enrichment with bilberry, when compared to black currants, reduced total and LDL (bad) -cholesterol levels. In fact, the total
anthocyanin content was four times higher in bilberries than in black currants, possibly making it a better choice for reducing LDL cholesterol levels.
4) Blood sugar control
Evidence suggests that consuming edible berries, particularly from the genus Vaccinium, that have high concentrations of anthocyanins could provide a supplementary intervention to improve glycaemia in subjects with type two diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, this was further supported by a 2013
study at the University of Aberdeen. The use of bilberry polyphenols as phytochemicals capable of lowering the glycaemia response to carbohydrates not only in subjects with diabetes but also in those with impaired glucose tolerance control may prove to be useful in helping control blood sugar and
suggested that such a strategy could complement the effectiveness of other lifestyle interventions such as avoidance of obesity and the need to take regular exercise.
5) Effective in relieving Diarrhoea
Bilberry has been traditionally used in European medicine to treat diarrhoea for many years. The fruit contains tannins, substances that act as both an anti-inflammatory and an astringent that helps with constricting and tightening tissues. By reducing intestinal inflammation, bilberry is believed to help with
reducing the symptoms of diarrhoea.
6) Managing Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s defense mechanism when it deals with disease and eliminating pathogens. However, when it becomes chronic, it can affect your quality of life. In this regard, the anthocyanins of bilberry can help reduce your risk of unwanted inflammation. In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers noted that participants who consumed anthocyanin-rich bilberry extracts helped inhibit factors that stimulate inflammatory response in their bodies. They went on to suggest that anthocyanin foods may have a positive effect on alleviating chronic inflammatory diseases.
Throughout history berry consumption has been an important and valued part of the human diet and now modern day research is highlighting how regular consumption of fruits may delay ageing processes and reduce the risk of various illnesses, such as cancer, cardiovascular and lung diseases, rheumatoid
arthritis, Alzheimer's dementia, or Parkinsonism with increasing evidence suggesting that increasing our intake of berries such as bilberries is a promising strategy to prevent Metabolic Syndrome and its complications such as the risk of developing type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Overall, it seems that Bilberries are indeed tiny nutrient powerhouses that pack a punch. On their own, they may not be a single-bullet solution, but a valuable option, as part of a varied, balanced, and healthy dietary approach promoting health and preventing disease.
If spending a few hours picking your own bilberries really isn’t for you then you can find them widely available in a variety of guises. From jams (opt for those that are naturally sweetened), juices and tinctures to powdered concentrates or as a supplement in tablet form which can be found in your nearby health
For those of you, who like me enjoy the outdoors, enjoy wild food and have a few hours and extra hands to spare...happy picking!
The information contained within this article is solely for educational purposes. Always consult your GP or
Healthcare professional if taking prescribed medication or undergoing any form of treatment.
References available on request.