Monday, May 5, 2008

Vision Care: Bilberry for the Eyes

Bilberry fruit

Bilberry could change the way you look at vision care.

During World War II, British Royal Air Force pilots ate bilberry jam before flying their evening bombing raids; they’d noticed that their night vision was sharper than usual whenever they ate the jam before starting their nighttime missions.

Although bilberry has been used as a medicinal herb since the 16th century, it was after the RAF pilots’ discovery that this plant got its modern reputation as a link to eye health. Recent clinical research confirms that ingesting bilberries improves visual acuity in healthy people, and can help improve vision in those with certain eye diseases, such glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

This cousin to the blueberry (also known as huckleberry in the US and whortleberry in England) has a history of treating a variety of health problems. Herbal medicine practitioners have long recommended bilberry to treat scurvy, urinary tract infections, stomach and digestive problems, and vascular and blood disorders. Dried bilberry fruit has been used as a remedy for nausea, indigestion and diarrhea; and to treat sore throat, sinusitis and kidney stones.

Bilberry's "secret ingredients"
How can this berry do so much? The “secret ingredients” in bilberry are compounds called anthocyanosides, which strengthen blood vessels and improve circulation, and can also be found in many Chinese herbal remedies. Anthocyanosides are natural antioxidants that also help lower blood pressure and reduce the stickiness of blood platelets, which helps prevent formation of blood clots. Bilberry leaves are a good source of chromium, which may help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Bilberry also is high in tannin, which helps control and reduce the intestinal inflammation that can cause diarrhea. And bilberry contains vitamins A and C, boosting its antioxidant power and helping to prevent free radical damage to the eyes. These vitamins and the anthocyanoside compounds make bilberry a powerhouse of eye protection.

Studies indicate bilberry may help prevent glaucoma, which is characterized by increased intra-ocular pressure, by stabilizing and preventing the destruction of collagen in eye tissue. Because bilberry improves the strength and integrity of collagen, it also may help prevent cataracts, another eye disease that results, in part, when the collagen matrix of the lens becomes weak and fragile. And the anthocyanoside compounds in bilberry have been shown to help prevent macular degeneration, a devastating eye condition that eventually leads to blindness, by increasing blood flow to the macula of the retina. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have healthy eyes, bilberry can help provide protection from eyestrain or fatigue, and (as with the RAF pilots in the ’40s) improve your night vision.

What’s the best way to get your bilberry? Some people enjoy fresh bilberries, or bilberry tea made from the dried berry or its leaves. But a no-fuss option is to take nutritional supplements with standardized bilberry extract. Not only is it more convenient to take a supplement than to hunt for fresh bilberries, supplements provide increased benefits -- you’d need a large quantity of berries or tea to get the same vision care benefits provided by the highly concentrated bilberry extract.

NOTE: The information in this article is not meant to take the place of professional medical advice. Check with your doctor before making decisions on any vision care supplement.

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