Plant Profiler

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Vaccinium myrtillus
Synonyms / Common Names / Related Terms
Airelle, anthocyanins, Bickbeere (German), bilberry leaf, black whortle, Blaubeere (Dutch), blaubessen, bleaberry, blueberry, blueberry leaf, bogberry, bog bilberry, burren myrtle, cranberry, dwarf bilberry, dyeberry, Ericaceae (family), European blueberry, Heidelbeere (Dutch), Heidelbeereblatter, heidelberry, huckleberry, hurtleberry, lingonberry, lowbush blueberry, Mirtillo nero (Italian), Myrtilli folium, Myrtilli fructus, Myrtilus niger Gilib., Optiberry, resveratrol, sambubiosides, trackleberry, Vaccinium angulosum Dulac, Vaccinium montanum Salibs., Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanoside extract, VMA extract, VME, whortleberry, wineberry.

Mechanism of Action


  • Constituents: Bilberry contains several compounds that have demonstrated biological activity. The main chemicals contained in bilberry extract have been shown to be: anthocyanins30,31, flavonoids, hydroquinone, oleanolic acid, neomyrtillin, sodium, tannins, and ursolic acid17,20,32,33,34. Bilberry also contains resveratrol.28,29 The anthocyanosides, tannins, and flavonoids have been of particular scientific interest. Flavonoids have been shown in vitro to possess a number of biological properties, including inhibition of prostacyclin synthesis, reduction of capillary permeability and fragility, free radical scavenging, inhibition of a wide range of enzymes, impairment of coagulation and platelet aggregation, and anticarcinogenicity.33,5
  • Mechanism of action: Anthocyanins and other phenolics from bilberry upregulate the oxidative stress defense enzymes heme-oxygenase-1 and glutathione S-transferase-pin cultured human retinal pigment epithelial cells, suggesting that they stimulate signal transduction pathways, influencing genes controlled by the antioxidant response element.30
  • Antibacterial effects: In an in vitro study using Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus aureus Oxford, Enterococcus faecalis, Bacillus subtilis, and Escherichia coli, an aqueous extract of bilberry leaves had a MIC of 12.7-17.8mg/mL and an aqueous extract of bilberry fruit had a MIC of 15.4-30.7mg/mL.24
  • Anticarcinogenic effects: In an in vitro study, anthocyanin-rich extracts from bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.) inhibited the growth of a colon cancer cell line.6
  • Bomser et al. screened fruit extracts of bilberry for potential anticarcinogenic compounds by a combination of fractionation and in vitro testing of their ability to induce the Phase 2 xenobiotic detoxification enzyme quinone reductase (QR) and to inhibit the induction of ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), the rate-limiting enzyme in polyamine synthesis, by the tumor promoter phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (TPA).5 The crude extracts, anthocyanin, and proanthocyanidin fractions were not found to be highly active in Phase 2 xenobiotic detoxification enzyme quinone reductase (QR) induction, whereas the ethyl acetate extracts were active QR inducers. The concentrations required to double QR activity (designated CDqr) for the ethyl acetate extracts of bilberry were 1.0mcg tannic acid equivalents (TAE). Further fractionation of the bilberry ethyl acetate extract revealed that the majority of inducer potency was contained in a hexane/chloroform subfraction (CDqr = 0.07mcg TAE). The anthocyanidin and ethyl acetate extracts of bilberry were either inactive or relatively weak inhibitors of ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity. The authors concluded that components of the hexane/chloroform fraction of bilberry exhibit potential anticarcinogenic activity, as evaluated by in vitro screening tests.
  • Antihyperglycemic effects: In normal and depancreatized dogs, oral administration of bilberry leaves reduced hyperglycemia, even when the glucose was injected intravenously concurrently.15,16
  • Antioxidant effects: Bilberry contains anthocyanosides that are flavonoid derivatives of anthocyanins (the blue, red, or violet pigments found in many berry varieties), which are closely related in structure and activity to flavonoids17 and possess free radical scavenging/antioxidant properties. Antioxidant properties have been attributed to bilberry based on in vitro studies.1,2,3, 4
  • Antiplatelet activity: In a clinical study of 30 subjects with normal platelet aggregation, 480mg of Myrtocyan® (Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanins) daily, 3g of ascorbic acid daily, or both treatments all reduced platelet aggregation after 30 and 60 days.11 Bilberry anthocyanins reduced platelet aggregation more than ascorbic acid alone, but bilberry anthocyanins and ascorbic acid together were the most effective. Also, in in vitro studies, anthocyanins extracted from bilberry have inhibited platelet aggregation.13,14,10,12
  • Flavonoids have been shown in vitro to inhibit prostacyclin synthesis. In one animal model, Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides were studied for their effects on prostacyclin-like activity in rat arterial issue.7
  • Antiproliferative effects: According to one laboratory study, anthocyanins were the predominant phenolic compounds in bilberry extracts.31 Compared to other plants with anthocyanins, such as black currant or lingonberry, cell growth inhibition was greater for bilberry than other plants studied. The pro-apoptosis marker, Bax, was increased 1.3-fold in bilberry-treated cells, whereas the pro-survival marker, Bcl-2, was detected only in control cells. The results demonstrated that bilberry and other berry extracts containing anthocyanins inhibited cancer cell proliferation, mainly via the p21WAF1 pathway.
  • Antiulcer effects: In an animal study, large doses of cyanidin chloride from bilberry significantly increased gastric mucosal release of prostaglandin E2.19 In animal models of gastric ulcers, cyanidin chloride showed antiulcer activity.26,8
  • Astringent effects: Bilberry contains tannins that have been used medicinally as astringents and to treat diarrhea.
  • Connective tissue stabilizing effects: An in vitro study has suggested that anthocyanosides appear to stabilize connective tissue by enhancing collagen synthesis, inhibiting collagen degradation, and enhancing collagen cross linking.35 In contrast, Boniface et al. found a significant decrease in connective tissue synthesis (collagen and glycoproteins) in gingival tissue samples of 12 adult diabetics treated with 600mg of anthocyanosides daily for two months.36
  • Hepatoprotective activity: In an animal study, anthocyans exerted a protective effect on liver cells.27
  • Hyperglycemic effects: In an oral glucose tolerance test in healthy rats, an alcoholic extract of Vaccinium myrtillus leaves increased serum glucose levels compared to controls.25
  • Hypotensive effects: Bilberry has been theorized to potentially drop blood pressure, based on pre-clinical evidence of vascular smooth muscle-relaxing properties.21,22,23
  • Anthocyanoside extracts have been shown to have smooth muscle-relaxing activity, which may account for their purported effects in one series of women with dysmenorrhea.18 Bioflavonoids and extracts of anthocyanosides (such as those present in bilberry) have been shown to relax vascular smooth muscles in experimental models, possibly via stimulation of prostaglandins.21,22,23
  • Intracellular signaling effects: Anthocyanosides have been shown to inhibit cAMP phosphodiesterase, which is involved in intracellular signal transduction pathways.8
  • Ocular effects: Anthocyanosides have been shown to exert direct effects on the retina, including the alteration of local enzymatic reactions and enhancement of the recovery of rhodopsin.9 The multi-ingredient product Mirtogenol (Pycnogenol® - French maritime pine bark extract and Mirtoselect® - standardized bilberry extract) has been reported to lower intraocular pressure and improve ocular blood flow.37
  • Smooth muscle relaxant effects: Anthocyanoside extracts have been shown to have smooth muscle-relaxing activity, which may account for their purported effects in one series of women with dysmenorrhea.18 Bioflavonoids and extracts of anthocyanosides (such as those present in bilberry) have been shown to relax vascular smooth muscles in experimental models, possibly via stimulation of prostaglandins.21,22,23
  • Vasoprotective effects: Flavonoids have been shown in vitro to reduce capillary permeability and fragility. Anthocyanosides have been studied for their potential protective effect in disorders due to abnormal capillary fragility.33


  • There are limited data regarding the pharmacodynamics and kinetics of Vaccinium myrtillus (bilberry) anthocyanosides (VMA). In one animal study, bilberry anthocyanosides were rapidly distributed after intra-peritoneal injection and intravenous administration.38 In another animal study, bilberry anthocyanosides were found to be eliminated via the bile and urine with a modest level of liver extraction.32
  • Bioavailability in animals is low. Following oral doses in rats, plasma levels of VMA reached a peak at 15 minutes and declined rapidly within two hours, and the absolute bioavailability was 1.2% of the administered dose.38 The gastrointestinal absorption of VMA was 5% of the administered dose. Another study found a differential affinity of VMA for certain tissues (especially skin and kidney).20 This suggests that different tissues may have more persistent local concentrations.

  1. Martin-Aragon S, Basabe B, Benedi JM, and et all. In vitro and in vivo antioxidant properties of Vaccinium myrtillus. Pharmaceutical Biology 1999;37(2):109-113.
  2. Prior R, Cao G, Martin A, and et all. Antioxidant capacity as influence by total phenolic and anthocyanin content, maturity, and variety of Vaccinium species. J Agricult Food Chem 1998;46:2686-2693.
  3. Martin-Aragon S, Basabe B, Benedi J, and et all. Antioxidant action of Vaccinium myrtillus L. Phytotherapy 1998;46:S104-S106.
  4. Laplaud, P. M., Lelubre, A., and Chapman, M. J. Antioxidant action of Vaccinium myrtillus extract on human low density lipoproteins in vitro: initial observations. Fundam Clin Pharmacol 1997;11(1):35-40. 9182074
  5. Bomser, J., Madhavi, D. L., Singletary, K., and Smith, M. A. In vitro anticancer activity of fruit extracts from Vaccinium species. Planta Med 1996;62(3):212-216.
  6. Zhao, C., Giusti, M. M., Malik, M., Moyer, M. P., and Magnuson, B. A. Effects of commercial anthocyanin-rich extracts on colonic cancer and nontumorigenic colonic cell growth. J Agric Food Chem  10-6-2004;52(20):6122-6128. 15453676
  7. Morazzoni P and Magistretti MJ. Effects of Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides on prostacyclin-like activity in rat arterial issue. Fitoterapia 1986;57:11-14.
  8. Magistretti, M. J., Conti, M., and Cristoni, A. Antiulcer activity of an anthocyanidin from Vaccinium myrtillus. Arzneimittelforschung  1988;38(5):686-690. 3415709
  9. Cluzel, C., Bastide, P., Wegman, R., and Tronche, P. [Enzymatic activities of retina and anthocyanoside extracts of Vaccinium myrtillus (lactate dehydrogenase, alpha-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase, 6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, alpha-glycerophosphate dehydrogenase, 5-nucleotidase, phosphoglucose isomerase)]. Biochem Pharmacol 1970;19(7):2295-2302. 4329039
  10. Morazzoni P and Bombardelli E. Vaccinium myrtillus L. Fitoterapia 1996;66:3-29.
  11. Pulliero G, Montin S, Bettini V, and et al. Ex vivo study of the inhibitory effects of Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides on human platelet aggregation. Fitoterapia 1989;60:69-75.
  12. Bottecchia D. Preliminary report on the inhibitory effect of vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides on platelet aggregation and clot retraction. Fitoterapia 1987;48:3-8.
  13. Zaragoza, F., Iglesias, I., and Benedi, J. [Comparative study of the anti-aggregation effects of anthocyanosides and other agents]. Arch Farmacol Toxicol 1985;11(3):183-188. 4096552
  14. Fdez, M., Zaragoza, F., and Alvarez, P. In vitro platelet aggregation effects of anthocyanosides of vaccinium myrtilus L. Anales de la Real Academia de Farmacia 1983;49:79-90.
  15. Bever B. Plants with oral hypoglycemic action. Q J Crude Drugs Res 1979;17:139-196.
  16. Allen, F. M. Blueberry leaf extract: Physiologic and clinical properties in relation to carbohydrate metabolism. 89:1577-81, 1927. JAMA 1927;89:1577-1581.
  17. Havsteen, B. Flavonoids, a class of natural products of high pharmacological potency. Biochem Pharmacol 4-1-1983;32(7):1141-1148. 6342623
  18. Colombo D and Vescovini R. Controlled clinical trial of anthocyanosides from Vaccinium myrtillus in primary dysmenorrhea. G Ital Obstet Ginecol 1985;7:1033-1038.
  19. Mertz-Nielsen, A., Munck, L. K., Bukhave, K., and Rask-Madsen, J. A natural flavonoid, IdB 1027, increases gastric luminal release of prostaglandin E2 in healthy subjects. Ital J Gastroenterol  1990;22(5):288-290. 2134327
  20. Lietti, A., Cristoni, A., and Picci, M. Studies on Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides. I. Vasoprotective and antiinflammatory activity. Arzneimittelforschung 1976;26(5):829-832. 9100
  21. Colantuoni, A., Bertuglia, S., Magistretti, M. J., and Donato, L. Effects of Vaccinium Myrtillus anthocyanosides on arterial vasomotion. Arzneimittelforschung  1991;41(9):905-909. 1796918
  22. Bettini V. Effects of Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides on vascular smooth muscle. Fitoterapia 1984;55(5):265-272.
  23. Bettini V, Mayellaro F, Ton P, and et al. Interactions between Vaccinium myrtillusanthocyanosides and serotonin on splenic artery smooth muscle. Fitoterapia 1984;55(4):201-208.
  24. Brantner, A. and Grein, E. Antibacterial activity of plant extracts used externally in traditional medicine. J Ethnopharmacol 1994;44(1):35-40. 7990502
  25. Neef H, Declercq P, and Laekeman G. Hypoglycaemic activity of selected European plants. Phytotherapy Research 1995;9:45-48.
  26. Cristoni, A. and Magistretti, M. J. Antiulcer and healing activity of Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides. Farmaco [Prat] 1987;42(2):29-43. 3582621
  27. Mitcheva, M., Astroug, H., Drenska, D., Popov, A., and Kassarova, M. Biochemical and morphological studies on the effects of anthocyans and vitamin E on carbon tetrachloride induced liver injury. Cell Microbiol 1993;39(4):443-448. 8329983
  28. Lyons, M. M., Yu, C., Toma, R. B., Cho, S. Y., Reiboldt, W., Lee, J., and van Breemen, R. B. Resveratrol in raw and baked blueberries and bilberries. J Agric Food Chem  9-24-2003;51(20):5867-5870. 13129286
  29. Rimando, A. M., Kalt, W., Magee, J. B., Dewey, J., and Ballington, J. R. Resveratrol, pterostilbene, and piceatannol in vaccinium berries. J Agric Food Chem 7-28-2004;52(15):4713-4719. 15264904
  30. Milbury, P. E., Graf, B., Curran-Celentano, J. M., and Blumberg, J. B. Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) anthocyanins modulate heme oxygenase-1 and glutathione S-transferase-pi expression in ARPE-19 cells. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci 2007;48(5):2343-2349. 17460300
  31. Wu, Q. K., Koponen, J. M., Mykkanen, H. M., and Torronen, A. R. Berry phenolic extracts modulate the expression of p21(WAF1) and Bax but not Bcl-2 in HT-29 colon cancer cells. J Agric Food Chem 2-21-2007;55(4):1156-1163. 17243699
  32. Lietti, A. and Forni, G. Studies on Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides. II. Aspects of anthocyanins pharmacokinetics in the rat. Arzneimittelforschung  1976;26(5):832-835. 989354
  33. Mian E. Anthocyanosides and microvessel walls: new findings on the mechanism of action of their protective effect in syndromes due to abnormal capillary fragility. Minerva Med 1977;68(52):3565-3581.
  34. Marcollet M, Bastide P, and Tronche P. Effet angio-protecteur des anthocyanosides de Vaccinium myrtillus odjective vis a vis de la liberation de la lactate deshydrogenase (LDH) et de ses isoenzymes cardiaques chez le rat soumis a une epreuve de nage. C R Soc Biol  1970;163:1786.
  35. Jonadet, M., Meunier, M. T., Bastide, J., and Bastide, P. [Anthocyanosides extracted from Vitis vinifera, Vaccinium myrtillus and Pinus maritimus. I. Elastase-inhibiting activities in vitro. II. Compared angioprotective activities in vivo]. J Pharm Belg 1983;38(1):41-46. 6553084
  36. Boniface, R. and Robert, A. M. [Effect of anthocyanins on human connective tissue metabolism in the human]. Klin Monatsbl Augenheilkd  1996;209(6):368-372. 9091714
  37. Steigerwalt, R. D., Gianni, B., Paolo, M., Bombardelli, E., Burki, C., and Schonlau, F. Effects of Mirtogenol on ocular blood flow and intraocular hypertension in asymptomatic subjects. Mol Vis  2008;14:1288-1292. 18618008
  38. Morazzoni, P., Livio, S., Scilingo, A., and Malandrino, S. Vaccinium myrtillus anthocyanosides pharmacokinetics in rats. Arzneimittelforschung  1991;41(2):128-131. 2043174

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