You might be reading this and thinking that this is a post on blueberries and that I simply misspelled the title. Well, little did you know that there is actually a fruit that looks almost identical to blueberries you can buy in the grocery store – they are called bilberries! I apologize if there are any bilberry enthusiasts out there who knew this fun fact already, but join me as I explore for myself what this curious berry truly is. Apparently the name bilberry originates from the Danish word “bollebar” which translates to “dark berry” – as a former Danish study abroad student I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add more fun trivia to this exploration of bilberries. Bilberries are also referred to as the common names of the european blueberry, or even the huckleberry. However, it is important to note that the bilberry is not actually the same fruit as the huckleberry, although they are often used similarly in cuisines.
From what I have learned through research on the fruit, is that there is little substantial scientific documentation of how bilberries affect the body. However, historically, bilberries were used to treat a variety of ailments that are no longer so common with the discoveries of modern medicine. For example, bilberries were once used in medieval times to treat strange ailments like swelling of the gums, inflammation in the mouth, and diarrhea, but also to treat things like diabetes and urinary tract issues. Traditionally, bilberries were also used as a source of vitamin C and consumed in the hopes of preventing diseases like scurvy. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cites a fun fact that soldiers in World War II would eat bilberry jam in hopes that the high concentrations of vitamin C would help improve their night vision. Today there are a few health and wellness websites that suggest bilberries may actually have some potential to reduce eye fatigue, but night vision might be a stretch. Again, only small studies have been completed and documented publicly, making it difficult to say if the potential health benefits of the bilberry are legitimate. For example, a small study of 24 people suggested that bilberries might be able to reduce the bleeding and swelling of the gums. However, not many of these studies are controlled nor are they large enough to make statistically significant claims. In addition, because it is not widely studied, the bilberry fruit has some potentially dangerous side effects if the leaves are ingested, or if the fruit is ingested while pregnant. If you have any of the medical issues that were once commonly treated by bilberry or bilberry supplements, I would encourage you to reach out and have a conversation with your doctor to see if taking bilberry supplements might be right for you, or if there is a more conventional approach using modern medicine. For example, swelling in the gums and bleeding of the gums can be a clean sign of poor oral hygiene, which may be fixable through regular brushing and flossing of the teeth. However, some cases of deterioration may be too bad to fix by way of these practices, so I would strongly urge you to see a professional dentist regarding these ailments before trying anything else.
As I am not sure where you can buy fresh bilberries online, I would think that most people attain their proposed benefits through bilberry supplements. However, as always, please be wary as supplements are not regulated strictly by the FDA, and may contain various potentially harmful ingredients. In fact, there are approximately 23,000 emergency room visits tied to supplements every year – many companies lie about ingredients, or supplements may even counteract or conflict with certain prescribed medications. Again, use with caution!