Berries are often hailed as some of the best fruits you can eat. That’s because they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that have a wide range of health benefits.
One class of compounds in berries that’s responsible for many of their health benefits is anthocyanins — the plant pigment that gives berries and other red, blue or purple plants their color. All berries contain some anthocyanins, but bilberries are considered one of the best natural sources.1
Bilberries are small, dark berries that look a lot like blueberries. In fact, because they look so similar, they’re often confused, but bilberries are smaller, softer and a little more tart than blueberries.
Bilberries, whose botanical name is Vaccinium myrtillus, are native to northern areas of the United States, Canada and parts of Europe and Asia and have been used as a medicinal plant for centuries.
You may not be as familiar with bilberries as some of the other berries such as blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, but with so many potential health benefits, it’s worth including them in your diet.
The Antioxidant Power of Bilberries
One of the reasons bilberries are so good for you is because of their high antioxidant content or, more specifically, their anthocyanin concentration. Anthocyanins are plant pigments classified as flavonoids.
Studies have shown anthocyanins protect against various long-term health issues and diseases, help improve eyesight and protect your nervous system.2 There are many physiological processes involved in how anthocyanins work, but two of the major mechanisms are by fighting free radicals and turning off chronic inflammation. Anthocyanins also have potent antimicrobial activity, so they can help fight infections from pathogenic viruses and bacteria.
While blueberries are often hailed for their rich antioxidant concentration, bilberries the only have 30% to 60% of the anthocyanin content of blueberries.3 True European bilberries contain 3.7 milligrams of anthocyanins per gram of total fruit weight. If you do the math, that means a half-cup of bilberries, which weighs roughly 74 grams depending on the size of each berry, contains about 274 mg of anthocyanins, most of which is concentrated in their skin.4
However, the exact amount of antioxidant compounds in bilberries depends on where they are grown. For example, one study showed that bilberries grown in the Velingrad region of Bulgaria had 34% higher concentrations of anthocyanins than bilberries that came from the Troyan region.5
There’s no current dietary recommendation for how many anthocyanins you should get, but studies suggest intakes of about 50 mg per day (about one-third cup) are enough to reap most of the health benefits.6 The average intake, meanwhile, is only 10.5 to 12.6 mg daily.7
In addition to anthocyanins, bilberries also contain catechins, epicatechins, quercetin, myrcetin and kempferol (other types of flavonoids), ascorbic acid, phenolic acids and chlorogenic acid — all compounds that also have antioxidant capabilities. While most of the benefits of bilberries can be attributed to their high anthocyanin content, all of the compounds work together to keep you healthy.
Bilberry Helps Maintain Eye Health
Legend has it that bilberries have been used to help improve vision since World War II, when British Air Force pilots discovered that when they ate bilberry jam before a night mission, they had better night vision.8 While there aren’t any official studies to confirm if bilberry actually has a positive effect on night vision, there are other studies that show bilberries can help improve other areas of eye health.
One animal study9 looked at whether or not bilberry could improve dry eye. The researchers found that daily administration of bilberry extract could increase tear production and help relieve symptoms of dry eye. In another animal study,10 bilberry was found to help fight against endotoxin-induced uveitis, or inflammation of the middle layer of the eye (called the uvea).
There are also some studies that look at how anthocyanins, in general, can help improve eye health. According to one review, anthocyanins can help increase blood flow to the eye, improve dark adaptation and relax eye muscles, helping improve symptoms of glaucoma and myopia, or nearsightedness.11
Bilberry Improves Blood Lipids and Heart Health
Although bilberries are small, they have big benefits for your heart. In one study,12 participants with risk factors for heart disease consumed bilberries, lingonberries, black currants and chokeberries on alternating days for eight weeks.
After the trial period, blood pressure decreased and HDL cholesterol increased significantly and there were measurable positive changes in platelet function. Another animal study13 found that bilberry extract could reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in diabetic rats.
Bilberry Protects Against Cancer
It’s estimated that 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer.14 But there are a lot of lifestyle changes you can make to protect yourself, and eating anthocyanin-rich foods like bilberries is one of them.
In a 2017 study,15 researchers discovered that consuming anthocyanin-rich foods can help inhibit cancer cell growth and prevent metastasis. Anthocyanins have also been shown to trigger apoptosis, or the death of cancer cells.
Bilberry Reduces Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s defense mechanism against diseases and potentially harmful pathogens. However, when it becomes chronic, it can affect your quality of life and lead to devastating conditions like heart disease, cancer and liver disease.
More than 50% of deaths worldwide are caused by inflammatory diseases.16 The anthocyanins of bilberry can help turn off chronic inflammation and return your body to optimal function.
In a 2007 study published in The Journal of Nutrition,17 researchers noted that anthocyanin-rich bilberry extracts helped inhibit nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB), a proinflammatory compound that can lead to chronic inflammation. In the study, which lasted three weeks, participants were divided into two groups. One group was given 300 mg of anthocyanins from bilberries each day, while the other group was given a placebo.
After the trial period, participants in the bilberry group had a 38% to 60% decrease in inflammatory markers, while the placebo group’s inflammatory markers went down by just 4% to 6%.
In another study,18 researchers found that some of the other compounds in bilberries — quercetin, epicatechin and reservatrol — could also inhibit NF-kappaB, reducing inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, and fighting off oxidative stress.
Bilberry Helps Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Some of the compounds in bilberries also act on digestive enzymes, slowing down carbohydrate digestion and helping to maintain healthier blood sugar levels.19
In one study,20 researchers divided participants into three groups: a bilberry-enriched diet group, a group whose diet was enriched with other berries (strawberries, raspberries and cloudberries) and a group on a control diet.
After eight weeks, only the bilberry-enriched diet group had positive changes in fasting blood glucose levels, insulin secretion and beta cell function. The researchers connected these benefits to better overall glycemic control.
Similarly, in an animal study,21 researchers found bilberry extract could reduce high blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity in mice with Type 2 diabetes, a combination that could both help prevent and treat the condition.
Bilberry May Help You Lose Weight
Studies show that having a high daily intake of anthocyanins may also help you lose weight, specifically fat mass, independent of other factors like genetics. Researchers from a study22 that was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the diets of healthy female twins and calculated their total flavonoid intake.
They found that participants aged 50 and younger with a high intake of anthocyanins had 3% to 9% lower total fat mass and less fat around their midsection than their twin.
The study didn’t use bilberries specifically, but since bilberries are one of the most anthocyanin-rich foods, it makes sense that including them in your diet would have similar, if not more significant, effects.
How to Eat Bilberries
The easiest way to eat bilberries is by the handful, just like you would with blueberries. However, since they’re not as popular as blueberries, they’re not always easy to find in your local grocery store.
If you can’t find them fresh, you can order organic dried bilberries online. If you choose to eat them dried, make sure you’re not overdoing it. Since dried fruit has most of the water removed, it’s a lot easier to eat too much of them and if you do, you’ll be taking in a lot of sugar too. You can also find bilberry leaf tea, although it’s better to consume the whole fruit to get the full benefit.