Like other anti-oxidants, plant flavonoids (or bioflavonoids) are important protectors against the cellular damage and associated degenerative diseases caused by free radicals. Flavonoids are also the compounds which give fruits and vegetables their colour, and the juice and skin of the bilberry, like that of cranberries and elderberries, is particularly rich in a type known as anthocyanidins, which impart their distinctive blue pigment.
Recently hailed by nutritionists as a “superfood”, European bilberries are close European relations of the American blueberry and it is the distinctive blue anthocyanoside pigment which is held responsible for its beneficial effects.
The body’s connective tissue, or collagen, depends heavily on this type of flavonoid, which is also particularly important in improving blood circulation, strengthening capillary walls, and in facilitating the action of vitamin C throughout the body.
The pigment is also believed to act as an anti-bacterial agent, which is particularly effective in countering intestinal problems, but it is from its effect on the circulation that most of the benefits of bilberries are derived.
Most famously, bilberries in the form of jam were used by British Royal Air Force pilots during the Second World War as a means of improving night vision. And this effect was generally accepted during the 1960s and 1970s. More modern research, however, is inclined to reject the evidence as inconclusive, and does not accept the claims of nutritional therapists that bilberry may also help alleviate everyday shortsightedness or myopia. It has been suggested, however, that anthocyanasides may help with the production of essential enzymes within the eye, which by increasing the output of energy may improve the general functioning of the organ.
Bilberry’s beneficial effects on the capillaries are also held to improve the circulation of the blood within the eyes. The central area of the eye’s retina, the macula, is made up of the light sensitive cells, the health of which is essential to good vision. Behind these cells is a dense mass of tiny capillaries which supply them with oxygenated blood and essential nutrients. The maintenance of the strength of these capillary walls is essential, and serious problems with vision may arise if any weakening through disease or oxidative degeneration leads to any leakage of blood into the retina itself.
Diabetics are known to be particularly prone to these kind of eye problems; and as well as possibly helping prevent the diabetic retinopathy which may follow on this capillary damage within the eyes, bilberries are also credited with lowering the high blood sugar which may have contributed to the problem in the first place. Bilberries’ anti-oxidant effect within the eyes is also a factor in combatting cataracts and age related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of blindness in older adults.
Bilberry supplements are readily available and often found in combination with lutein and zeaxanthin, anti-oxidant carotenoids which are also thought to have powerful beneficial effects within the eyes, and particularly in combatting the progressive loss of vision caused by AMD.
Needless to say opinions are strongly divided as to the effectiveness of these preparations. The general opinion of the medical and opthalmic professions may be summarised as “case not proven”, at best, but nutritional therapists and alternative practitioners swear by them. Of course the attitude of the opthalmic profession is not surprising given its record of hostility to the work of such as Dr. Bates in seeking alternatives to artificial methods of correction (ie spectacles), and in its persistent rejection of the compelling evidence in favour of more natural methods.
And indeed there is an almost reflex tendency in orthodox medicine which seems determined to meet anything which sits outside the conventional “wisdom” with scepticism if not outright hostility. Of course we should welcome rigorous scientific enquiry and an insistence on the proper testing of evidence as a safeguard against the more extravagant claims of those interested only in selling products of dubious value. But anecdotal evidence as well as direct personal experience suggests that modern science doesn’t always get it right.
And when it comes to a food like bilberries there’s really no barrier to setting personal experience against the abstract research. We’re talking about an entirely natural food stuff, with a long history of human use, which can be obtained very inexpensively, and which can do no harm in any quantities conceivably likely to be ingested. If the claims made for bilberries as a super food and anti-oxidant are even partly true the question must be: why wouldn’t you try it?
So although I normally I hate puns, this was one I couldn’t resist. In the case of adding bilberries to your diet, the best approach may be, quite literally, to try it and see.