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Bilberries May Help Inflammatory Bowel Disease Patients


If you have inflammatory bowel disease and you are not familiar with bilberries, it may be time to make their acquaintance. Researchers in Europe report that animal models of colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, responded well to bilberry extract.

Bilberries are rich in anthocyanins

A number of natural substances and supplements have been proposed to help inflammatory bowel disease; among them, olive oil, probiotics, resveratrol, curcumin, and even marijuana compounds. Now a new study suggests that bilberries may be an addition to this growing list.

Bilberries, which are a close relative to blueberries, contain anthocyanins, pigments that have antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory properties. Previous studies show bilberries are effective in the management of diarrhea, which is one of the main characteristics of inflammatory bowel disease.

The new study involved a mouse model of colitis, one of the two primary types of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohns disease is the other). The mice were exposed to a chemical to induce colitis and then divided into three groups: one group was given a diet in which 20% of their food was bilberry supplement; the other two were given either 1% or 10% anthocyanins as part of their normal diet.

In the mice that received the bilberry supplement, the symptoms of colitis improved; specifically, intestinal inflammation and disease severity were reduced. The bilberry extract and anthocyanins both prevented self-destruction (apoptosis) colonic epithelial cells induced by inflammation in the other groups of mice. Overall, the results indicate that a clinical trial of the effects of bilberries on patients who have inflammatory bowel disease is warranted.

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Inflammatory bowel disease affects more than 1 million individuals in the United States. While both ulcerative colitis and Crohns disease are characterized by chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract, abdominal cramps, fever, and bloody diarrhea, the main difference between is that ulcerative colitis can be cured by surgery, while Crohns disease cannot.

Experts are still searching for the causes of inflammatory bowel disease, although environmental and genetic factors are involved. On the environmental side, bacteria, diet, or stress are believed to be triggers for inflammation and an abnormal dysfunctional immune response.

Bilberries, which are also known as huckleberries and whortleberries, traditionally have been used to treat diarrhea, menstrual cramps, eye problems varicose veins, and circulatory problems. The anthocyanins are credited with improving circulation, preventing blood clots, and building strong blood vessels, while the tannins found in the berries have anti-inflammatory properties and may help control diarrhea.

Overall, the investigators concluded that dried bilberries improved chronic colitis, and that their results “justify a clinical study on the therapeutic effect in inflammatory bowel disease patients.”

Pilberger H et al. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 2011 Nov; 55(11): 1724-29

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons