Bilberry, known as Vaccinium myrtillus, is a shrubby perennial plant one to two feet in height and can be found in the mountains and forests of Europe and the northern United States. The berries and leaves are used medicinally, but the berries have been found to be most beneficial for eye health. Historical uses include military soldiers in the field that ate the jam of the berries to help with night vision. The sweet and tart tasting berries of the plant are commonly used in supplements and tinctures. The berries contain vitamin C and anthyocyanins, giving them potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Common eye concerns include glaucoma and cataracts. Glaucoma is a condition that damages the optic nerve that sends signals from the eye to the brain. It is the second leading cause of blindness in the United States. The condition is a result of increased intraocular pressure (IOP) in the eye. Depending on the reason for the increased IOP, the condition can be asymptomatic or can cause symptoms such as pain in the eye, cloudy vision, nausea or vomiting, halos around light, or a swollen feeling. Visual deficits are usually in the peripheral fields. The best way to diagnose glaucoma is with an eye exam and a series of testing to check not only for eye pressure changes, but for other signs of damage.
Cataracts are common in the aging population. The lens of the eye becomes clouded, causing blurry vision, colors that appear faded, glaring, impaired night vision, and double vision. Compared to glaucoma, the blurring usually occurs in the central line of sight. Changes take place slowly over time. People with metabolic disorders and unstable blood sugar, such as diabetes, are especially at risk for developing cataracts.
Bilberry helps the eye by strengthening collagen cross linking and increasing the integrity of the vascular system. It is also anti-oxidant leading to decreased damage to the vascular system generated by free radicals. One recent study published by researchers in Japan, found that anthocyanin-rich bilberry extract has a protective effect on visual function during retinal inflammation. They also found that bilberry extract prevented the impairment of ocular photoreceptor cell function.
The berries reduce damage to the vascular supply to the eyes and are utilized to treat cataracts. Significant improvements have been seen with both diabetic retinopathy, damage to the retina as a result of diabetes, and hypertensive retinopathy, damage to the retina as a result of high blood pressure, in patients supplemented with Vaccinium extracts. One specific study examined patients taking 115 mg anthocyanins per day for one month and found beneficial improvements in eye health.
Bilberry is generally safe, but should be discussed with a healthcare professional. Bilberry is in the same family as other commonly consumed berries such as blueberries and cranberries. Stock up on berries this fall and eat your way to better eye health!