Herbs: Bilberry Bombs (cont.)

Next we approached Thomas Dobie, MD, PhD. In addition to flying a Wellington bomber during World War II, Dobie now directs the National Biodynamics Laboratory at the University of New Orleans. With his combination of medical expertise and personal experience, Dobie seemed in a perfect position to confirm the tale. But while he snacked on wild bilberries as a child in Scotland, Dobie had no recollection of slathering bilberry jam on his wartime toast.

Perhaps the bilberries were served in a different mess hall, or after Dobie's tour of duty. So we asked Col. Mark Well, PhD, head of the history department at the U.S. Air Force Academy and author of a 1995 book on the experiences of World War II airmen, what he knew about the RAF's secret weapon. "In all my work on the RAF Bomber Command, I've never run across any reference to bilberry whatsoever," he said.

Puzzled, we turned to British experts at the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine and the Bomber Command Historical Society. None could find so much as a smudge of jam in their files.

Of course, it's impossible to prove that no RAF pilot ate a bilberry during the Second World War. What really matters is whether the berries provide the benefits that advocates claim. According to the web site of the Vitamin Planet supplement stores, bilberry helps "control insulin levels and strengthen connective tissue," has "positive benefits toward hypoglycemia, inflammation, stress, anxiety, night blindness, and cataracts," and "may help halt or prevent macular degeneration."

Does It Work?

Few of these claims have been studied. But, inspired perhaps by the RAF legend, a handful of researchers have looked into the vision boosting effects of the berries. Three French studies from the mid-1960s found improved light sensitivity in pilots, air traffic controllers, and truck drivers who had taken bilberry. A 1987 Italian report on 34 patients suggested that bilberry might fortify leaky blood vessels in the retina. On the other side of the balance, a 1997 Israeli study on 18 people found no effect of bilberries on night vision.

The only rigorous trial carried out in the United States also reached a dim conclusion. With an eye to sharpening the night vision of U.S. Navy Seals, scientists at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, Fla., gave 15 subjects bilberry capsules and tested their visual acuity and contrast sensitivity in a darkened room.

In the April 2000 issue of Alternative Medicine Review, the researchers reported that they found no improvement in either measure, although the subjects swallowed the maximum recommended dose of bilberry for three weeks (some web sites promise results in as little as 20 minutes). Since the study was small and included only healthy men, it doesn't rule out possible benefits from bilberry, says Lt. Eric Muth, PhD, a member of the research team. But the results convinced the Navy to forget the herb as an aid for night combat. Says Muth, "If you asked me, 'Should we put our special forces on this to improve their night vision?' I'd say, 'Don't waste the taxpayers' money.' "