There’s promising news for people who suffer from a very intractable disease. Patients with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the rectum and the lining of the colon, often have to turn to powerful drugs or surgery to relieve symptoms such as painful abdominal cramping and uncontrollable diarrhea—and relief does not always come. But new research shows that there’s a food that may help these patients find relief naturally—bilberries!
You’ve likely never seen these in the produce section of any supermarket that you’ve visited here in the US. Resembling blueberries in both appearance and flavor, bilberries are much more commonly grown and eaten in Europe. They’re known to be particularly high in anthocyanins—the chemical compounds that give berries their rich, vivid colors—and as we’ll see later, they also have anti-inflammatory properties.
To find out more about new research into why bilberries impact IBD, I called lead study author Gerhard Rogler, MD, PhD, a professor in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at University Hospital of Zurich and Zurich Center for Integrative Human Physiology in Switzerland. The study was published in the November 2011 edition of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.
A BILBERRY-RICH DIET
Prompted by patients who told him that bilberries seemed to improve their symptoms of ulcerative colitis, Dr. Rogler worked with researchers from around Europe to design a mouse study to see if they were right. The mice were all induced with acute ulcerative colitis, and researchers divided them into five groups, as follows…
- One group (the control group) ate standard mouse food.
- One group ate food that was 80% standard mouse food and 20% dried bilberries (by weight). Dried bilberries contain about 11.2% anthocyanins.
- The other groups ate standard mouse food plus an extract consisting of either 10%, 1% or 0.1% bilberry anthocyanins.
The result: Bilberries made a big difference. One week after being on the diets, the group receiving the 0.1% extract showed no reduction in inflammation of the lining of the colon and rectum compared with the control group…the 1% extract group showed a 56% reduction…the 10% extract group showed a 43% reduction…and the group eating a diet of 20% dried bilberries had a 35% reduction.
Dr. Rogler isn’t sure why the 1% extract had the greatest effect, but the fact that bilberries may help at all is good news, because if a human with ulcerative colitis were to experience a similar reduction in inflammation of the lining of the colon and rectum, he or she would likely experience fewer and/or less severe symptoms.
There was another benefit seen for the mice that ate either the actual bilberries or the extract—big reductions in the amount of secreted proteins called IFN-y and TNF that have been shown to be part of the cause in autoimmune diseases.
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE?
Dr. Rogler called these study results “quite encouraging,” though he added that further research will be needed to confirm that bilberries would have a similar effect in humans. Future studies will also need to figure out the best amount for humans to eat and whether or not a certain amount of a bilberry supplement would work equally well.
Even though the science is young, since the symptoms of ulcerative colitis can be so severe, Dr. Rogler would encourage patients to talk to their doctors now about at least eating the dried fruit. But it’s crucial to talk to your physician first, because some parts of bilberries may interact with diabetes medications, anticoagulant drugs or supplements that contain chromium (because bilberries contain chromium, too).
How to find the fruit? You can buy dried bilberries online. If you eat them fresh, you would probably get the same amount of anthocyanins as you would in dried, said Dr. Rogler, but they’re hard to keep fresh—especially when shipped—so you’re more likely to find them dried. For example, you can buy four ounces of dried bilberries at www.StarwestBotanicals.com, a retail herb shop based in Rancho Cordova, California, for about $13. Throw them on your cereal or salad or make your own trail mix for a delicious way to fight disease.