Do you remember as a child hearing the common admonition to eat your carrots because they would make your eyes bright and shiny? Or your spinach to make the eyes strong and sharp? These are but two examples of foods that have since been shown through research to do exactly that! Another eye-fortifying food is the bilberry, or European blueberry. This cousin to the American blueberry is a smaller, darker, less pulpy version than the cultivated blueberries in American supermarkets. They have been eaten as a food in Europe for centuries fresh, in conserves, sauces and pastries. Bilberries resemble more closely the wild blueberries encountered in the northern ranges of the US and Canada, although these wild stands have not received any research attention to date. However, the European bilberry has been the subject of extensive research over the last 50 years, verifying the many health benefits that have been noted for centuries in European herbalism, gastronomy and folklore. Medicinal herbal preparations from bilberry are commonplace today in the European pharmacy and frequently prescribed by physicians in Germany, Italy and France.
Much of this research has focused on bilberry’s ability to support healthy eye function in the face of fatigue or the onslaught of aging, as well as for treating specific eye conditions. The earliest studies used Royal Airforce pilots during World War II. The stream of research has continued steadily since then for such varied complaints as poor night vision, eyestrain, diabetic retinopathy, ocular hypertension, glaucoma, tired and reddened eyes, macular degeneration, near-sightedness, sensitivity to glare, retinitis pigmentosa, (slow adaptation to light/dark shifts) and cataracts. In many of these studies, bilberry was found to be both an effective prevention and treatment for these conditions, with very impressive effectiveness rates. Bilberry’s accomplishments stem primarily from increasing blood circulation to all the extremities of the body, not just the eyes. It protects the integrity of the blood vessel walls from breakage or fluid leakage as well. These actions also benefit people suffering from poor circulation to the legs and feet, varicose veins and hemorrhoids (including during pregnancy) and the circulatory complications of diabetes. Laboratory studies have found activities that suggest benefits for those with heart conditions and atherosclerosis. Bilberry’s antioxidant activity helps to protect cells from damage and destruction by free radicals, particularly important for delicate eye tissue. Oxidation is a fact of life, but does increase with age: in fact, it is thought to be one of the causes of what we call aging. This antioxidant activity coupled with its inflammation-fighting capabilities tend to support bilberry’s folk reputation for benefits in arthritis and ulcers.
These amazing little berries provide so many benefits they deserve a place in everyone’s home as preventative or treatment. Using supplement forms of the berries ensures a certain level of activity in the body for greatest effects, but the berries themselves should be added to your diet as well if you can find them in specialty groceries. These are truly superfoods that provide long lasting and wide ranging benefits that we all can use!
Werbach, M. & M. Murray. Botanical Influences on Illness.
Third Line Press, 1994.
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