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Bilberry, or Vaccinium myrtillus (Latin), is made from a small, blue berry that has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. Like their close relatives, blueberries and cranberries, bilberries have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. Bilberry has traditionally been used to treat diarrhea, varicose veins, mucous membrane inflammation, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). It has also been shown to be particularly beneficial to the health of the eyes.

Bilberry contains flavonoids called anthocyanosides, which are found largely in dark-skinned fruits, and act as potent antioxidants in the body. These anthocyanosides are thought to be at least part of the reason that bilberry is effective in treating such eye disorders such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts. In one Italian study, a combination of bilberry extracts and vitamin E stopped the progression of cataracts in 97 percent of the study participants.

Bilberry may also help improve night vision. British pilots in World War II ate bilberry jam before flying at night, claiming that the jam gave them better vision. Some research seems to indicate that the pilots were correct—bilberry may help the eyes adjust to different light intensities more quickly.

In Europe, a bilberry extract called Vaccinium Myrtillus Anthocyanoside (VMA) is a popular treatment for chronic venous insufficiency, a condition characterized by swelling, varicose veins, pain, itching, and skin ulcers in the legs. It might also prove to be an effective treatment for Raynaud’s disease, a condition that causes numbness and pain in the outer extremities (fingers, toes, nose) upon exposure to the cold--the anti-inflammatory properties of bilberry help reduce the stress on capillaries, and relax small blood vessels, which helps keep the blood flowing to all parts of the body. Because bilberry strengthens the capillaries, it is also used to discourage bruising.

Bilberry promotes good circulation and strengthens artery walls, and thus may be an effective treatment for atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up on the artery walls and blocks the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart. Bilberry’s anti-inflammatory properties also work to reduce the overall inflammation, including inflammation of the gums, that has been linked with heart disease.

Bilberry has long been used to ease gastrointestinal discomfort. During the 16th century in England, eating bilberries mixed with honey was a popular remedy for diarrhea. Today, Commission E, an expert panel that evaluates herbal medicines in Germany, endorses bilberry as a treatment for diarrhea. The commission also recommends bilberry for treatment of mouth sores—bilberry is thought to have strong antiseptic qualities, and initial studies indicate that it may be an effective treatment for peptic ulcers as well. Bilberry has also been used traditionally in the treatment of diabetes, fibrocystic breast disease, and painful menstruation.

Bilberry is available in tinctures and capsules. One 80 to 160-milligram extract capsule standardized to 25 percent anthocyanidin, taken three times per day, is the usual dosage. You can also eat fresh or dried bilberries, if you can find them.

Bilberry may cause gastrointestinal upset, dizziness, or headaches, but such reports are rare. Also, people taking drugs or herbs that lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, cause diarrhea, or thin the blood, should take bilberry with caution—it could increase the effects of these herbs and medications.

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