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Can Bilberry Extract Help Protect the Eyes?

Tradition credits bilberries with vision-preserving power. Despite a lack of clinical trials, some readers report that bilberry extract helped.
Can Bilberry Extract Help Protect the Eyes?
Bilberry. Fresh Bilberries from the market. Macro shot.

World War II buffs have doubtless heard that British pilots flying night raids attributed their success to eating bilberry jam. Even back then, people believed that bilberry compounds had special power to protect vision, especially night vision. More recently, some historians have suggested that bilberry jam was a deliberate misdirection. The pilots talked about it so that the Germans wouldn’t guess that the British had acquired radar to guide them. At the time, that technology was brand new. How has the very old approach of eating bilberries or taking bilberry extract fared in the intervening years? One reader related an interesting experience.

Can Bilberry Extract Help Vision?

Q. I developed early-stage macular degeneration some 20 years ago, and completely turned it around by taking bilberry extract. My ophthalmologist confirmed that it was the onset of macular degeneration and that it’s completely gone now.

A. Bilberries are a close relative of blueberries and are also referred to as huckleberries, whortleberries or European blueberries. People sometimes eat bilberries or take supplements to help with diabetes or cardiovascular conditions as well as macular degeneration or other eye problems.

Not all readers have had the same success you did with bilberry extract. However, a clinical trial suggests there might be benefits from a dietary supplement containing bilberry along with lutein, vitamins and other antioxidants (Advances in Therapy, Sept. 2019).

Anthocyanins in Bilberries:

The blue and purple pigments in bilberries known as anthocyanins have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity (Antioxidants, April 2019). Unfortunately, scientists have conducted very few clinical trials of bilberry extract. (The one we mentioned above stands out.) However, one study found that bilberry anthocyanins can protect the retina in rabbits (Molecules, Dec. 14, 2015). 

Doctors can prescribe effective medical treatments for macular degeneration. As a result, everyone with this serious eye condition should be under an ophthalmologist’s care. Your eye specialist will be able to oversee your treatment and we urge you to let him or her know if you are adding bilberry supplements to your prescription medications.

You may be happy to know, however, that you are not the only one to find bilberry extract helpful. We heard this report from another reader:

Bilberry Extract for Macular Degeneration:

Q. My wife had macular degeneration, and our ophthalmologist said it would just get worse. We immediately started taking bilberry fruit capsules because I wanted to be pro-active.

A year later, we returned for her annual eye exam. The doctor’s assistant administered the exams. After checking her three times, she took her folder to the doctor and told him in front of us that the assistant last year sure messed up the exam.

The doctor replied,

“I administered that exam myself and I know it is proper.”

The assistant exclaimed that the macular degeneration was only blocking 25 percent of vision instead of 45 percent like last year and that was impossible.

The doctor asked what we had done and I told him about the bilberry extract. He was pleased with her progress. When she passed away three years later at age 82 she had no more macular degeneration.

A. Bilberry has a reputation as being good for eyesight. There has been very little research on its power to treat macular degeneration in human beings, though there are some intriguing animal data.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Parravano M et al, "Effects of Macuprev® supplementation in age-related macular degeneration: A double-blind randomized morpho-functional study along 6 months of follow-up." Advances in Therapy, Sept. 2019. DOI: 10.1007/s12325-019-01016-2
  • Khoo HE et al, "Nutrients for prevention of macular degeneration and eye-related diseases." Antioxidants, April 2019. doi: 10.3390/antiox8040085
  • Wang Y et al, "Retinoprotective effects of bilberry anthocyanins via antioxidant, anti-Inflammatory, and anti-apoptotic mechanisms in a visible light-induced retinal degeneration model in pigmented rabbits." Molecules, Dec. 14, 2015. DOI: 10.3390/molecules201219785
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