Vaccinium spp.: Bilberry, huckleberry, whortleberry, etc.
by Rob Biddleman
Medical Herbalism 01-31-95 6(4): 6-7
Vaccinium species are found in cooler areas of North America and Eurasia, usually in moist, acid soils in wooded areas, heaths and barren places. They are especially common under canopies of old growth trees. Vaccinium leaves were used by the Kashaya Pomo in Northern California for diabetes and eye disorders, and bilberry is mentioned in many older texts in Buryatia, Europe, and China as an herb valuable for it’s powerful ability to correct many diseases of the digestive system, circulatory system, and eyes. For centuries bilberry has been used as a circulatory enhancer and diabetic aid (Hutchens; Moore).
People of the North East USA have used blueberry leaves for diabetes for many years, and this action has been supported in at least one clinical trial (Allen). Most scientific research has been done on V. myrtillus (bilberry). The following has been found in bilberry: ericolin, arbutin, beta-amyrin, nonacosane, and anthocyanosides. Anthocyanosides are a type of flavonoid which causes the deep blue-red color of many berries. Anthocyanosides may protect the vascular system by strengthening the capillary walls. This may produce many of the secondary benefits such as lowering of blood pressure, reduction of clots, reducing varicosities and bruising, reversing poor blood supply, and improving blood supply. Bilberry is used in Europe before surgery to prevent excessive bleeding and hemorrhaging. A recent German medical journal reports bilberry effective in reducing excessive bleeding by 71% (Lietti). Bilberry also thins the blood by inhibiting platelet adhesion (Bottecchia). This combination of actions — 1) improving capillary strength, 2) reduction of capillary leakage, and 3) blood thinning — results in improved blood flow and may reduce clotting-related health risks.
Improvement of Vision
World War II Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots were
forced to fly at night in
order to accomplish any deep assault on Germany.
Many pilots and their
crew members complained of the poor visibility
and its effects on their
performance. Pilots noted that if they took
bilberry jam, their night vision
improved. Researchers found fifty years later
what the RAP already knew,
that bilberry’s powerful effects increased
retinal purple (rhodopsin) by
dramatic amounts in just twenty minutes,
sometimes less. One study showed
bilberry to improve eyesight and increase
occular blood supply in 75% of
patients (Sala). It improved nearsightedness
after five months of regular
use while an 83% improvement in visual acuity
was recorded after only fifteen
days. One of the more encouraging statistics
regarding bilberry’s visual
enhancing properties is that over 80% of the
people taking bilberry for
the first time improved on their visual acuity
exam and passed a night
vision test. Long term improvements took an
average of six weeks with regular
The anthocyanosides of bilberry, which may vary in amounts from one variety to another, have been proven to be one of the more powerful antioxidants. Ranked higher in activity than vitamins E and C by Dr. Pierre Braquet, a well known phyto-researcher, anthocyanosides prevent free radical damage to collagen and collagenous tissue, making it potentially useful for diseases such as osteoarthritis, gout, and periodontal diseases. Vaccinium myrtillus’ anthocyanosides proved consistently to increase the acetylcholine-induced relaxation of isolated coronary arteries in humans (Boniface). This is a promising update to the already impressive list of benefits of bilberry. Another quality of bilberry is the effect it has on the digestive system, most notably on the stomach. A recent study showed bilberry to inhibit ulcers in 63% of patients at risk (control group, 12%) (Magistretti).
Vaccinium species have a legendary reputation as aid to an diabetics. A dual action makes it valuable in diabetes — it improves circulation and also modifies blood sugar levels (Boniface; Magistretti). The fresh or dried berries are useful for a feverish liver and are useful as an adjunct in stomach conditions. In Russia the berries are called affectionately by the name chernika (“black ones”) and are used with the leaves in tinctures for gastric colitis and other digestive problems.
Allen. JAMA. 1927; 89:1577
Borel J.P. et al. Fitoterapia (1993) 64:45-57
Boniface, R. Et.al. Stud Org Chem 23:293-301, 1986
Bottecchia D. et al. Fitoterapia (1987) 48:3
Braquet P. et al. Agents Action (1984) 13:49-50
Goodrich/Lawson/Lawson. Kashaya Pomo Plants. UCLA Press.
Hutchens A. A Handbook of Native American Herbs. Shambala
Magistretti M.J. et al. Arzneimittel Forschung (1988) 38:686
Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Red CraneSala D. et al. Minerva Oftalmologic (1979) 21:283