Re: Bilberries



Bilberry is the common name of Vaccinium myrtillus, sometimes called Creeping Blueberry. Some people call American huckleberries bilberries, but generally it is the European shrub that carries this name.
The myth that bilberries improve vision & make it easier to see in the night is just that, a myth -- the usual story is that RAF pilots ate bilberry jam before heading out on night sorties, & for that reason bilberry extracts or powders are sold as an herbal remedy for poor vision & sight-related diseases. The myth that it slows down aging is based on discoveries about natural antioxidants, but the science is never as exaggerated as the herbal community's re-inventions of smaller truths. I will focus on the easily debunked vision myth, as it is really quite fascinating how these often moronic superstitions about herbs come about.
Bilberries like other vaccininiums & most edible plants include isoflavins & other chemicals that make fresh fruits so healthful overall, but no controlled study has ever shown special significance for vision, though the profitability of keeping this myth alive means herb vendors will encourage the gullible & the superstitious to believe it forever.
Alternative Medicine Review is predisposed to give positive reviews to herbs. Yet even this journal could not but publish in April 2000 the findings of Lt. Eric Muth, PhD, a double-blind study entitled "The effect of bilberry nutritional supplementation on night visual acuity and contrast sensitivity." This is by far the best study yet designed, & it discovered that there was no basis for the belief. This was a Navy-funded study, & they had hoped to discover they could improve the night vision of naval flyers by giving them bilberry, but there was simply no such effect. Three poorly modeled studies done in the 1960s in France had left open some faint hope of value, but alas a study with better controls closed even the slightest statistical possibility.
Other alternative medicine journals & especially pop-books have published EDITORIALS and ASSERTIONS alleging values in treating cataracts, diabetes, aging, & so on, but these were just herbal quacks passing on beliefs without science to back them up. However, vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, bilberries, oranges, & suchlike have quite a lot of vitamin C, & there is a theory, unproven, that this antioxidant action of a diet with plenty of fruit helps keep cataracts from forming, & has other positive health effects. This effect has little to do with bilberries per se, which alone could not provide enough vitamin C to have the particular effect, though concentrated extracts MIGHT contain beneficial antioxidant compounds, same as could be said of any other extract rich in vitamins. A Tufts University study (itself not published in a peer review journal, but only in a Tufts University newsletter, so of only moderate value as evidence) showed that high daily doses of vitamin C lowered the incident of cataracts in women. This seems to be the basis of the herb vendors' wilder claims for bilberry extract per se, building on old RAF pilot folklore, & recommending bilberry extract for macular degeneration & cataracts.
But the study of the effect of vitamin C had nothing whatsoever to do with bilberries. A study specifically with bilberry extracts does exist, quite a good one, but it does not get cited by herb-promotoers. "The Age-Related Eye Disease Study" sponsored by the National Eye Institute looked specifically at bilberry extracts in treatment of cataracts, & found bilberry to be worthless. But that hasn't slowed downs the vendor claims, nor has it put the kabosh on the gullibility of herbal hypochondriacs.
Most vendors when backed into a corner or forced to legally prove their claims will admit it is only a "traditional folk remedy" (meaning they cater to superstitions of people who think folklore is the better part of science), but the cornered companies don't personally recommend their products be taken for any medicinal purposes, but only as food supplements. Yet they so encourage a belief in bilberry as a "treatment" for macular degeneration & cataracts that they really should be blitzed with civil suits from people who failed to get actual medical treatment & so hastened their road to blindness by relying on non-medical pamphleteering, vendor promotions, & the medical advice of otherwise unemployable check-out tellers at a misnomered healthfood stores. Being moronic enough to believe bilberries make it possible to see in the dark is a fairly harmless delusion, but believing it will help with actual eye diseases that could be treated with actual medical care means that this kind of superstitious tommyrot blinds people & destroys their quality of life. Vendors who pander to this level of delusion in order to get rich while injuring peoples' health should be thrown in jail.
Donald J. Brown in HERBAL PRESCRIPTIOSN FOR BETTER HEALTH claimed "evidence" for Bilberries which improved the night-vision of rabbits, but no such double-blind rabbit study exists in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. Brown is cheating by relying on an animal study of atherosclerosis, an arterial disease, which nowhere states that rabbits had improved night vision. Brown pretends to be a doctor, but he is not an M.D., nor even a pharmacologist. He's a self-styled naturopathic "phytotherapist," which amounts to his being an herbal quack, whose research is used by businesses but never published in peer-reviewed journals of actual science. He used to be a teacher at the pseudo-scientific Bastyr University which promotes among other laughable falsities HOMEOPATHY which is Theosophy- & Alchemy-based "science" that contradicts the basic physics of the known universe & has no basis in reality. And Brown is no more a medical doctor than was "Colonel Sanders" a colonel in the armed forces.
MISTER Brown's popular book so mixes up the absurd with the vaguely possible that it is ultimately a worthless book that makes little effort to distinguish the proven from the disproven, though useful for helping herbal hypochondriacs from gobbling down stuff that is outright toxic & deadly. As founder & president of Natural Products Research Consultants, Inc., the focus is on PRODUCTS, & his purpose is to promote profitable herbal products, not to educate the public to the 10% reality & help avoid the 90% crackpottism & superstition.
A typical promo-essay for bilberry extracts will cite the RAF urban legend, then allude to actual chemical components of the fruit, then speak of "theories" about the usefulness in treating macular degeneration, cataracts, & improving night-vision, all the while never literally claiming value of any kind, to protect themselves from being sued or imprisoned. Yet by the overwhelming INSINUATION that it is useful leaves the victimized customer with the the definite impression that herbal powders & extracts have just been recommended for something specific, so I believe the vendors should in fact be sued or imprisoned for endangering peoples' health.
Many "pop" authors cite an old Italian study by Fiorni G. Biancacci et al, which is not available in English. The various pop authors merely cite each others' citations, & there is never any real data provided, as any data that actually exists tends to prove the opposite of the claims being made. The only synopsis of this article I could find in English suggested that it had evocative or suggestive findings that bilberry extracts (but not bilberries per se) MIGHT help heal capillaries in the eyes, but this possibility could not be substantiated by a later Israeli study that concluded there was no such effect. Eric Muth's research, conducted with a desire to find in the affirmative, found there was no effect on the eyes, & that should have put this all to rest -- & does put it to rest for anyone interested in real evidence over mythology.
The legend of magical value of bilberries & super-vision in darkness began in World War II when RAF pilots purportedly received bilberry jam as a regular part of their rations & which the pilots came to regard as a vision-enhancing potion that improved their night-targetting of German targets. Or downed pilots would seek out bilberry bushes so they could see to travel by night when trying to return from behind enemy lines. Or so the story goes; there is not much good evidence that RAF pilots ever believed such a thing, but it wouldn't be out of the question, because RAF pilots were notoriously superstitious. Most of them had good luck charms of one kind or another & lost their nerve if their lucky charms were lost. They credulously told ghost stories & angel-stories to each other, such as the RAF tale of being led through a fogbank to safety, or aided during aereal combat with Germans, by British phantom bi-planes arriving from out of the clouds to help WWII pilots, afterward vanishing, these having been the ghosts of ace pilots from the First world war. RAF pilots may indeed have begun telling each other that bilberries increased their night-vision, & they may have believed in bilberries the same way they believed in phantom biplanes.
POSSIBLY this was part of the RAF mythology, but not probably. One herbal quack (Robert Biddleman) claimed to have actually interviewed elderly RAF pilots about this, but Biddleman alas kept no proof, documentation, or names that he has ever been able to share. By contrast, Thomas Dobie, MD, PhD, who was a RAF pilot in WWII, & director of the National Biodynamics Laboratory at the University of New Orleans, when asked about this myth said he remembered eating Bilberries in Scotland as a child, but could recall no special significance to RAF pilots.
Col. Mark Well, PhD, who wrote a book on RAF pilots, likewise said that in all his years as an historian deeply devoted to the topic of wartime air pilots, he never came across any reference whatsoever to bilberries. WebMD.com contacted experts at the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine, & the Bomber Command Historical Society, & not one of them had ever heard of this bit of mythology. The only person WebMD.com could find who had any recollection of anything even slightly related to this was David Holmes of Raleigh, N.C., who remembered his grandfather (who flew with the RAF) mentioning that after the introduction of radar, RAF bombing became more accurately targetted, but to confuse the enemy, the story was leaked that it "was something in the pilots' diet" that improved their targetting -- that something, however, was carrots, not bilberries, & the story was concocted merely to keep the Germans from knowing the real reason for improved accuracy.
Virtually all interest & allegations about the usefulness of bilberry for vision stems from the legend that RAF pilots used it. Even if they had used it, this is hardly evidence of anything, given the superstitious nature of RAF pilots -- as well to use the superstitions of baseball players as proof that the supernatural is real. But it begins to look like the foundation of the belief in bilberry vision-enhancing was itself a fairy tale, & no RAF pilots ever actually believed in that particular fantasy!
The modern market for bilberry ectract to correct near-sightedness & improve night-vision is not a harmless fraud. Since concentrated bilberry extract can inhibit clotting & worsen bleeding disorders, it can be dangerous (the fresh fruit lacks this danger). And anyone with a treatable eye disorder who fell for this mythology instead of visiting an eye doctor could go blind as punishment for being so damned stupid.
-paghat the ratgirl
--
"Of what are you afraid, my child?" inquired the kindly teacher.
"Oh, sir! The flowers, they are wild," replied the timid creature.
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