Bilberries, or blueberries (Vaccinum myrtillus) are one of nature's little miracles! They are first cousins to cranberries and are known by a number of rustic-sounding names in many English local dialects, including whortleberry, whinberry and black-heart. In North America they are also called huckleberry and in Ireland: fraughan. They grow well in acidic soils in the cooler parts of the world and were traditionally gathered in late July or August in time for the first harvest festival when the yield of bilberries were said to be an indicator of how well the rest of the crops would do that year. In North America, production starts as early as mid-May and goes through to September, but nowadays delicious bilberries/blueberries are available all year round.
Bilberries contain flavenoids known as anthocyanosides, which are powerful anti-oxidants. In fact bilberries have a higher anti-oxidant content than any other fruit. These have been widely extolled for their role in counteracting cell damage from free radicals. They contain a range of micronutrients essential to the human body, such as manganese, and Vitamins B6, C and K.
Bilberries are important for maintaing healthy vision and have been reputed to help the retina (which is the light-sensitive part of the eye) to adapt properly to changes between light and dark. This has made them popular in the treatment of poor vision resulting from daytime glare and also for night-blindness, because they can strengthen the tiny blood vessels of the eye and assist the release of oxygen-rich blood to the eye. In older people they have been used to treat the two main causes of sight loss: macular degeneration and cataract. The former is caused by age-related degeneration of the central retina and the latter to loss of lens transparency. They may also be useful in treating glaucoma as they are believed to strengthen collagen, the protein needed to maintain healthy tissues.
Another benefit of improved blood flow in capillaries is in general circulatory improvement - a major cause of varicose veins, haemorrhoids and pre-menstrual discomfort. More recent studies have linked the consumption of bilberries with improvement in the cognitive deterioration associated with Alzheimer's disease. Studies in England found that supplementing the normal diet with bilberries over a 12 week period caused improvement in spatial awareness and memory within just three weeks!
Animal studies have found bilberry consumption to be beneficial in reducing brain damage in stroke, and lowering cholesterol and blood lipid levels, which are both major factors in heart disease and hypertension. yet more research is being conducted into their effects on inhibiting cancer cell development.
As if all this is not enough, a study involving rats at the University of Michigan suggested that bilberries can help reduce abdominal fat, which is a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease. Apart from a reduction in total fat mass, the rats' liver mass was also reduced and this could have significant benefits on obsesity-related diabetes. All this has yet to be proven to occur in humans, but the early findings are exciting news indeed.
Like cranberry juice, bilberry juice is also an internal cleanser. With its mild antibiotic properties, the juice can flush out bacteria in the urinary tract and help prevent infection. As bilberries contain good levels of fibre, they can also aid constipation and improve digestion when eaten daily with cereal, yoghurt, or just as they come.
Bilberries (or blueberries) are certainly one of natures true miracles and, on top of all their benefits, they taste wonderful! When buying them fresh, always go for the deeper-hued ones as these are richer in those health-giving anti-oxidants.