Legend has it that during World War II, British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots ate bilberry jam to improve their eyesight and night vision, which resulted in more successful night bombing missions. Others later claimed this was a rumor intentionally spread to hide the fact that the British military was secretly testing new radar equipment.
Whether or not eating jam gave the RAF an edge may be debatable, but bilberry’s benefits for your eyes are indisputable.
All About Anthocyanins
The bilberry jam stories inspired researchers to study how Vaccinium myrtillus L., a European cousin of blueberries, supports eye health. They concluded that it is due to bilberry’s high concentration of anthocyanins—plant pigments that give berries, grapes, and other red, blue, and purple plants their vivid hues.
Anthocyanins, which are members of the flavonoid family of phytonutrients, have diverse health benefits. They are potent antioxidants that effectively scavenge free radicals and protect against oxidative stress, plus they help curb inflammation. Epidemiological studies have linked a high intake of berries and other anthocyanin-rich foods with a reduced risk of developing numerous chronic diseases.
These plant pigments improve blood lipids and other cardiovascular biomarkers, thus protecting against heart disease. They inhibit cancer cell proliferation and suppress tumor growth. Some anthocyanins improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, and others have antimicrobial activity against a wide range of bacteria. Research suggests that anthocyanins also have neuroprotective effects.
As for the eyes, small studies have shown that concentrated anthocyanin supplements provide modest improvements in patients with open-angle glaucoma or age-related macular degeneration. However, I am most interested in their ability to reduce everyday vision complaints and support overall vision health.
Eye Problems in the Digital Age
According to a recent report, in 2020 Americans spent an average of seven hours and 50 minutes per day consuming digital media. This includes time on Facebook and other social media sites, digital video like Netflix and YouTube, and working on desktop or laptop computers. More than three hours of that time was on smartphones.
Whether you recognize it or not, this takes a toll on your eyes. Excessive digital screen use may, over time, increase your risk of developing disorders such as glaucoma and cataracts. It can also affect your macula, an area in the retina responsible for central vision. Digital devices emit blue wavelengths of light that can not only damage the macula but, when used at night, suppress melatonin production, throw off your natural circadian rhythm, and interfere with sleep.
That’s one reason why I recommend supplemental lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that accumulate in and protect the macula. Along with zinc and vitamins C and E, these carotenoids have been shown to protect against macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss in older people.
However, excessive screen time also affects your eyes in less serious but more obvious and bothersome ways—and here’s where bilberry really shines.
Bilberry & Eye Health
Have you ever experienced eye strain, dry eyes, or overall eye fatigue after staring at a screen for hours on end? How about headaches or trouble focusing your eyes? These symptoms are so common that they’re sometimes referred to as “computer vision syndrome.”
Of course, you should follow the usual recommendations to properly adjust your screen angle and distance, make sure your font settings are large enough, take frequent breaks, and limit your screen time. But I also encourage you to consider taking bilberry supplements for eye protection.
This concentrated source of anthocyanins helps shore up your antioxidant defenses, which can be depleted by blue light-derived free radicals during prolonged screen time. Plus, concentrated bilberry extracts have been demonstrated in clinical trials to improve common eye problems that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
One representative study involved adults with eye strain, fatigue, dryness, and other symptoms related to the overuse of digital devices. They were divided into two groups and given either standardized concentrated bilberry supplements or placebo capsules to take daily for six weeks. When they were reevaluated, the participants who had taken bilberry supplements reported less eye fatigue and dryness compared to those in the placebo group, and they scored better on tests of tear production and accommodation (ability of the eyes to focus).
What About Night Vision?
So, did bilberry jam improve the RAF pilots’ eyesight? The jury is still out. Although clinical trials to date have failed to demonstrate significant improvements in night vision, I wouldn’t rule it out. Problems with glare, vision in low-light conditions, driving at night, etc., are much more common as we get older. Yet, most of these studies involved young people with good eyesight. Furthermore, the bilberry dose used in some of the studies was so low I wouldn’t expect much of an effect.
I can’t promise that supplemental bilberry will improve your night vision, though many long-time users swear it does. Even if bilberry‘s support for the eyes is limited to preventing and relieving eye strain, dryness, fatigue, and other common problems, it is a worthy addition to your supplement regimen—especially if used along with lutein, zeaxanthin, saffron, and targeted vitamins and minerals that enhance other aspects of eye health.
Look for a concentrated extract of natural bilberry, standardized for a minimum of 36% anthocyanins. The recommended dose is 120–160 mg daily.