The vascular system, also known as the circulatory system, is made up of the vessels that carry blood and lymph through the body from the brain down to the toes, delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues and organs and removing waste products. In addition to circulating blood and lymph through the body, the vascular system also plays a major role in the proper functioning of other body systems, including the respiratory, nervous, digestive, and urinary systems – a properly functioning vascular system is crucial for whole body health. And an unassuming little berry known as the bilberry has a special affinity for the vascular system, helping to promote and maintain health throughout the entire body.
Native to northern Europe, the bilberry contains anthocyanosides, powerful antioxidants that protect the body from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Besides fighting free radicals, bilberry also promotes capillary health and improves blood flow by helping to maintain the strength and flexibility of capillary walls. When capillary walls are flexible, blood cells are able to flow freely through these narrow vessels, thereby increasing the ability of nutrients to pass through. Perhaps this explains why bilberries have been found to promote healthy vision, since our eyes contain high concentrations of capillaries and capillary damage is a factor in the development of many eye diseases.
Another way in which bilberries support vascular health is by maintaining the stability of the collagen matrix. Laboratory studies show bilberry extracts help to stabilize and protect collagen proteins by inhibiting enzymes that cause collagen to break down. By strengthening the collagen that makes up arterial walls, bilberry helps keep arteries smooth, inhibiting plaques from forming, and flexible, which helps normalize blood pressure. Additionally, bilberry has been found to inhibit blood clot formation, thus reducing the risk of stroke, and preventing LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, which is a major risk factor for developing atherosclerosis.
An animal study published in early 2012 showed that an anthocyanin-rich bilberry extract positively influenced the expression of more than 1200 genes in the aorta, including genes associated with inflammation and oxidation, processes associated with the development of atherosclerosis. The bilberry extract also increased the strength of the bonds between endothelial cells, making it harder for cholesterol to infiltrate and start the plaque formation process.
Other research shows that bilberry extracts help protect against some complications of diabetes by improving collagen integrity, stabilizing capillary permeability, and improving blood flow; can modulate inflammatory gene expression associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); and may reduce the expression of amyloid protein precursors associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
With an affinity for the vascular system, but with the potential to influence an array of health issues, bilberry may just be the little berry that could.
Note: Those on blood-thinning medications (including aspirin) or diabetes drugs should consult with a doctor before taking bilberry, as bilberry can increase the effects of these medications. Always check with your healthcare practitioner before taking a new supplement or herb.
WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants, World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/medicines/areas/traditional/SelectMonoVol4.pdf Volume 4, 210-222.
Pennarola R, et al,. The therapeutic action of the anthocyanosides in microcirculatory changes due to adhesive-induced polyneuritis. Gazz Med Ital.139:485-91. (1980).
Bratman S., Kroll D., Bilberry (Vaccinium myrillus). The Natural Pharmacist: clinical evaluation of medicinal herbs and other therapeutic natural products. Roseville, CA, Prima Publishing (1999).
Ghiringhelli C, Gregoratti L, Marastoni F., Capillarotropic activity of anthocyanosides in high doses in phlebopathic statis. Minerva Cardioangiologia, [in Italian] 26:255-276 (1978).
Bilberry, University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/bilberry-000225.htm (2011).
Vaccinium myrtillus - Bilberry - Monograph - therapeutic uses in natural medicine, Alternative Medicine Review, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FDN/is_5_6/ai_80490871/pg_2/?tag=content;col1 (October 2001)
Meletis, Chris D., ND, Vision-Supporting Nutrients Enhance Heart Health, Build Immunity and Protect Against Damage from Computer Use, http://www.vrp.com/vision-and-sight/bilberry-and-black-currants-vision-supporting-nutrients-enhance-heart-health-build-immunity-and-protect-against-damage-from-computer-use (March 19, 2012).
Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus), Plant Profiler, http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/life-science/nutrition-research/learning-center/plant-profiler/vaccinium-myrtillus.html (March 19, 2012).
Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus), Healthy Life Press Inc., http://www.starthealthylife.com/page240.htm (March 19, 2012).
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), NHI Corporate Information, http://www.nhiondemand.com/viewcontent.aspx?mgid=410, (March 19, 2012).
Bilberry, National Institutes of Health, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/202.html (Jan. 14, 2012).
Monograph -Vaccinium Myrtillus (Bilberry), Thorne Research Inc., http://www.thorne.com/altmedrev/.fulltext/6/5/500.pdf (2001).
Kemper, Kathi J.,MD, MPH, Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus), Longwood Herbal Task Force, http://www.longwoodherbal.org/bilberry/bilberry.pdf (Sept. 9, 1999).
Mateljan, George. What are bilberries? The World’s Healthiest Foods. George Mateljan Foundation, Seattle, WA. 406 (2007).
Colantuoni A, Bertuglia S, Magistretti MJ, Donato L., Effects of Vaccinium Myrtillus anthocyanosides on arterial vasomotion. Arzneimittel-Forschung 1991 Sep, 41(9):905-9.
Lietti A, Cristoni A, Picci M., Studies on Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides. I. Vasoprotective and antiinflammatory activity., Arzneimittel-Forschung 1976, 26(5):829-32.