Oats provide more than tasty cookies and a warm, nourishing breakfast. Cultivated in temperate climates across the world as food and medicine since ancient times, this multifaceted grain can transform into several different medicines, all of which provide a foundation for health and well-being.
The oat plant can be divided into three categories based on plant part and medicinal use: milky oat seed for nervous system restoration; oat straw and dry oat tops, which are rich in minerals; and oat grain (oatmeal) with its soothing, nutritious properties. Both the cultivated (Avena sativa) and wild (A. fatua) species can be used interchangeably, but the cultivated species is more commonly available, oddly, even when labeled “wild oats.”
Milky Oat Seed
Fresh milky oat seed soothes, calms, and rebuilds the nervous system. To harvest milky oat tops, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the maturing seed heads — as a nerve tonic, they’re viable for only a short window. Here in New Hampshire, oats that I plant in late May are usually ready the last week of July, but this varies by location and season, so watch your plants closely. You’ll know they’re ready when the plants are vibrant green and the tops release a milky latex when squeezed. Squeeze a few plants throughout your stand to make sure the whole stand is ready for harvest. Remove the tops by running your hand up the stem, which will make the seeds pop off.
Process milky oat seeds fresh; once dried, their medicinal properties more closely resemble oat straw. I whir the seeds in a blender with high-proof alcohol to make a tincture, but apple cider vinegar or water (to freeze) can also be used. When you strain the tincture out a month or so later, include the white particles that settle to the bottom — that’s the good stuff. Shake well before taking. Milky oat glycerite also soothes the nervous system, but it’s challenging to make at home without spoiling due to its high moisture content.
Milky oat is beloved by herbalists as a supreme nervine trophorestorative, a tonic that modulates the nervous system to restore vitality. It’s specifically indicated for nervous exhaustion and fatigue. In the 1900s, Eclectic doctor Finley Ellingwood recommended it for “overworked conditions of brain workers — ministers, physicians or lawyers — in the general prostration from great anxiety and worry.” Some refer to this as “adrenal fatigue” or “adrenal burnout.” Consider milky oat for stress, anxiety, fatigue, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, sexual lackluster, grief, trauma, and any other time the nervous and adrenal systems need to be calmed, nourished, rebuilt, and deeply but gently energized.
Milky oat tincture should be taken in relatively large, frequent doses: 1 to 5 milliliters (1⁄5 to 1 teaspoon) 2 to 5 times daily. It may take several weeks or even a month to fully kick in, but it does its job exceedingly well. Consider blending it with faster-acting herbs for harmonious, immediate results, such as skullcap, lemon balm, motherwort, ashwagandha, or holy basil. In formulas, milky oat makes a wonderful supportive herb for energy, focus, mood, and calm.
Oat Straw and Dry Oat Tops
Oat straw — or dried oat tops — provide ample, tasty nutrition, especially in tea form. To harvest oat straw, cut down the top one-half to three-quarters of the plant while it’s still green and vibrant, just after you harvest the milky oat seeds.
Dry the oat straw thoroughly and chop it into small, manageable pieces. I sometimes use sharp, sturdy kitchen shears and snip away at the dry herb while watching a movie or chatting with friends — it’s a long, slow process. In truth, I often buy oat straw. If you choose to do the same, seek reputable bulk herb companies because quality can vary widely. Good dried oat straw should be light green, not brown or yellowish.
Once dried, you can make tea from the oat straw or oat tops via standard infusion, decoction, or super infusion. To extract minerals — the main reason to use oat straw — the latter methods make a much more potent beverage. You can also add oat straw to broth (the grass is too tough to eat, so strain it out), or use the powder as a supplement.
Ounce for ounce, oat straw contains approximately 3 times more calcium, 4 times more magnesium, and 67 times more silica than oatmeal. This makes oat straw particularly good for bones, teeth, hair, skin, nails, and general wellness when consumed on a regular basis over a long period of time.
Even though the straw and dry tops aren’t as nourishing to the nervous system as milky oat seeds, the calcium and magnesium still offer indirect nervous system benefits. They blend well with fellow nutritives, including nettle, horsetail, violet leaf, and alfalfa. Use oat straw or dried tops as supportive herbs in flavorful tea blends where their light, sweet, hay-like flavor complements and grounds more flavorful herbs such as lemongrass, Korean mint, and anise hyssop.
Most of us don’t harvest our own oat grains in the home garden. It’s far easier, more practical, and more economical to buy them at the store.
The majority of our modern applications for oats originate from the ancient use of the grain, when it was viewed as a somewhat slimy food good for convalescence, general nourishment, and well-being. Oats first appeared in Greek and Roman texts, including De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, who applied oat gruel as a poultice and porridge for intestinal health, as well as a cream for coughs. The German physician and mystic Hildegard von Bingen wrote in Physica that warm oats “are both rich and healthy nourishment for healthy people.”
Today, oats are known to be high in fiber and contain other beneficial compounds, such as beta-glucans, which help to improve heart health, reduce cholesterol, and lower blood sugar. Topically, oatmeal has demulcent, soothing properties. It can be applied as a wet poultice, gentle facial scrub, lotion, or added to a bath to soothe itchy, irritated skin.
Generally speaking, all parts of the oat plant are safe and well-tolerated by most people. The primary safety concern involves those with celiac disease, gluten allergies, and gluten sensitivities. A 2002 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed no negative effects from long-term oat consumption by people with celiac disease. Oats do not contain gluten, but they do have a similarly structured protein called “avenin.” That said, oatmeal and oat grains can be contaminated with gluten because food crop fields and processing equipment are often shared with wheat. Luckily, as medicinal herbs, this is rarely a concern with the production of oat straw and milky oats.
Some people may also have an allergy to oats or avenin. Oat straw generally contains little to no avenin; nonetheless, if you’re allergic to oatmeal, you may prefer to avoid other forms of oat as medicine.
To maximize nutrition, plant oat seeds in good quality soil. Devote an out-of-use garden bed to the crop, or plant a modest stand at the back of your garden, ensuring that other plants don’t out-compete it for space and sun.
After the threat of frost has passed, rough up the soil lightly with a rake, scatter the seed, and tamp it in. Water regularly as it gets established. Any plant material you don’t harvest will die back after it sets seed or at the first frost; it can be left in place or worked into the soil to improve nutrition. When I plant 5 pounds of seed in the previous year’s 100-foot-diameter chicken run, I get approximately 3 pounds of fresh oat seed. Watch for wild turkey and other critters that may think you laid out the seed to feed them.
Calming Tincture Blend
To make a tincture, use 1 ounce fresh herb by weight for every 2 ounces high-proof alcohol by volume. Blend or chop your herb and pack into a jar, then cover to the top with alcohol.
(If you don’t have a scale, simply pack as much plant material into the jar as you can and cover completely with alcohol.)
Store in a cool, dark place, and strain after approximately 1 month. I prefer to make individual plant tinctures to blend together as needed.
You can certainly experiment with more ingredients for a tincture blend, but a simple “twofer,” such as the one below, does quite nicely for immediate and long-term mood support. Lemon balm gently uplifts and improves focus, while skullcap has a stronger calming effect, specific for people who are on edge, easily agitated, or over-reactive. Other herbs to consider are fresh holy basil and motherwort. Yield: 2 ounces.
1 ounce fresh milky oat seed tincture