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The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), also known as the blaeberry or whortleberry, closely resembles a smaller version of its cousin, the American blueberry. The bilberry is native to Europe, where it is generally not cultivated but grows wild in abundance. Originally prized as a foodstuff, bilberries have been recognized for their health-promoting properties since approximately the twelfth century. Bilberries grow on a shrub that reaches an average height of about 16 inches (40 cm). The leaves of the bilberry shrub are small, pointed ovals, and the bluish purple berries are harvested in late summer to early autumn.
Both the bilberries and the leaves of the shrub are used for homeopathic remedies. The berries are eaten fresh or dried, and the dried leaves are used to make tea. Bilberry extract, ideally standardized to contain at least 25 percent anthocyanidins, may be taken in the form of capsules or tinctures. Bilberries are also popularly used as fillings for pies, tarts, and crepes; for jam; and for pancakes.
The dark purple bilberries contain phytochemicals that make them a particularly nutritious food. Anthocyanidins, the class of flavonoids found in bilberries, are responsible for their color. Anthocyanidins are potent antioxidants and therefore may help protect the body against damaging free radicals, which have been linked to cancer and heart disease. Anthocyanidins also act to boost circulation, a quality that makes bilberries of potential interest in the treatment of circulatory complications of diabetes.
Because of their astringent and anti-inflammatory properties, bilberries have been used for centuries in European homeopathic medicine as a treatment for diarrhea. As a close cousin to the cranberry, the bilberry is also considered to be useful in treating urinary tract infections. Bilberry-leaf tea has been used to treat mouth and throat sores, and there is some evidence obtained from animal studies that the flavonoid compounds found in bilberries may be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of peptic ulcers.
Anecdotal evidence from British fighter pilots in the Second World War suggested that eating bilberry jam helped to improve their night vision. This has been the subject of much interest, and many studies have been carried out to determine whether bilberries have any advantageous effects on vision. At this point, it is widely believed that the anthocyanidins in bilberries do offer some benefits for the eye. These include improvement in microcirculation in the eye, protective effects on the retina, and enhanced production of a photosensitive pigment in the eye called rhodopsin, which is necessary for vision in dim light.
Although bilberries are considered to be generally safe, extracted forms of the fruit and large quantities of the steeped leaves are considerably stronger and require more careful dosing. Because the anthocyanidins found in bilberries act to improve circulation, those taking blood-thinning medications should exercise caution.
It should be noted that all herbs contain substances that may cause undesirable side effects or interact with medications. Anyone interested in using bilberries or bilberry leaves medicinally should do so only with a physician’s consent and under the supervision of a knowledgeable and reputable practitioner of homeopathic medicine.
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