The Medicine of Milky Oats
Latin Name: Avena sativa, Avena fatua
Common Names: Milky Oats, Wild Oats, Catgrass
Energetics: Neutral to Sl. Warm, Sl. Moist
Actions: Nervous and endocrine restorative, relaxant and stimulant nervine, antispasmodic
This vibrant green grain has slowly but surely become a very important (and lately, necessary) ally for me. Infinitely useful in our burned out, mentally overworked and emotionally underfed culture, I find myself dispensing this sweet herb on regular basis. Personally, this has been an important helper in restoring some of the diminished elasticity and “bounce backness” of both my physical and emotional wellbeing.
I should be clear that I am specifically speaking of the Oat tops, harvested in their milky stage (in other words, the unripe seed when full of a white milky fluid, before they become “oats”) and preserved fresh, usually in alcohol. Oatstraw and dried Oat tops are lovely, but they’re a different medicine (to be discussed here sometime in the near future).
The plants are quite easy to grow if you can just keep the critters out of them, I lost about 3/4 of my crop this year to the beasties but still managed to get enough for some tea and tincture. In case you don’t want to buy some huge amount (100 lbs or so) of seed, you can look for organic catgrass seed, which is just Oats. You can get it cheap and in small amounts this way. If you live in a very warm climate, the milky heads may be ready sometime near the beginning of May, but this year here in the mountains ours matured at the same time as Vermont’s did, about a week ago. In general, they tend to be closer to the beginning of July, but we’ve had abnormally cool nights this year in New Mexico.
Milky Oats’ most remarkable actions tend to be seen in exhaustion. It is a profound restorative for the nervous and endocrine systems which are so easily depleted by a stressful lifestyle and bad diet. It’s no replacement for proper nutritional therapy but an excellent therapeutic agent for the process of healing. It seems to directly provide a special sort of “nerve food” for the body, to rebuild the nervous apparatus in a way that is both nutritional and yet more.
Avena is quite helpful helpful where there is mental and physical exhaustion along with inability to focus, heart palpitations, loss of libido, irritability and potential addiction issues. This isn’t a random list of symptoms, it’s a real pattern that’s worth keeping in mind.
Its selective influence is directly upon the brain and upon the nutritive functions of the organism, increasing nerve force and improving the nutrition of the entire system. The influence of a single full dose is promptly felt, similar to the influence of any active stimulant, but more permanent. It is a stimulant, sedative and direct nutritive tonic, apparently restoring the wasted elements of nerve force…
It is a remedy of great utility in loss of nerve power and in muscular feebleness from lack of nerve force.
In the overworked conditions of brain workers–ministers, physicians or lawyers—in the general prostration from great anxiety and worry…
With these, there is so-called nervous dyspepsia, atonicity, in fact, of the entire gastrointestinal tract. There is heart feebleness with some irregularity; there is cool skin and cool or cold extremities: there is melancholia, irritability, peevishness, vagaries of thought, morbid desires and fancies, usually accompanied with autotoxemia which demands persistent elimination. With these avena is directly indicated.
In sexual neurasthenia it is the remedy par excellence, as it has a selective influence upon the nerve structure of the genito-urinary apparatus…
In conjunction with cactus, or apocynum, as these remedies are indicated, it will be found of much service in the treatment of weak heart, and the resulting complications.
In addition, there is also often an underlying sense of depression, a deep dark hole that can be felt through the anxiety and exhaustion. A slow but steady lessening of interest in life, often due to the simple lack of energy needed to maintain such interest and activity, although sometimes complicated by a deep seated emotional sadness, feelings of loss and unresolved grief. Tucson herbalist Charlie Kane states that:
There is some difficulty in describing what Wild oats actually does; it is not an overt sedative, nor is the plant overtly stimulating, but this does not detract from the fact that if you are physically and emotionally “rode hard and put away wet” the plant imparts a sense of stability.
Depressive states arising out of pushing through workload on the job or at home are lifted. The edginess and frayed-end feeling of kicking nicotine, opiate or alcohol habits is also lessened. As Michael Moore succinctly puts it, “This is crispy critter medicine”.
This is also a wonderful remedy for any case of great grief from loss. A teacher of mine, when faced with huge grief from the untimely loss of a loved one, found the only way he could stay afloat (and alive) was by juicing and drinking large amounts of fresh Milky Oats (he also found that Elderflower tincture helped a great deal). In addition, Henriette Kress says:
Milky oats is the single best herb for sudden loss, be it from the tsunamis in Asia or from cancer in somebody close to you. I recommend it both for those who are directly affected by the loss and sorrow and for those who stand beside them, frustrated by their sheer helplessness.
While Milky Oats is a classic overall nerve restorative and relaxant, it does have some very specific indications. Perhaps foremost is when someone’s nerves are so deeply burnt out and hypersensitive that they can’t stand to be touched. Even when they want a hug, the stimulation of intimate contact will make them feel like pulling their hair out. I have vividly experienced this myself and also observed several times in clients. Skullcap is also quite specific for sensory hypersensitivity but Milky Oats excels where the sense of touch is the most sensitive aspect. Skullcap and Milky Oats also combine exceptionally well for a great many cases of nervous exhaustion.
Withania and Milky Oats is another favorite combo of mine, especially for adrenal burnout with insomnia, nervousness, inability to focus, lack of libido and sensory hypersensitivity. They also combine nicely with Nettle Seeds when there’s exhaustion to the point of chronic fatigue and ongoing lack of vital energy. 4And then there’s the wonderful Peaches ‘n Cream formula, a tasty combo of Peach twig and Milky Oats that is fabulous for overheated, red-faced, can’t relax type A people who really need some nourishment and chill out time.
While material doses of a dropperful can be useful and certainly safe with such a gentle herb, I find that I often use closer to seven to ten drops at a time. It’s best repeated quite often (a min. of three times per day) and used steadily over a period of at least several months. The only side effect I’ve ever noticed is the tendency to bring on mild hot flashes in some people, that effect seems to lessen of a period of taking the herb so it may just be a symptom of an initial increase in vital force. It could potentially be too moistening for some individuals, but where it is clearly indicated it is unlikely to cause any adverse effects.
Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Michael Moore
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Notes from Materia Medica lectures by Matthew Becker (NAIMH)
Class notes from Charles Garcia
Hard Rock and Milky Oats by Angie Goodloe
Wild As The Day Is Long:
Oatstraw/Dried Oat Tops
Common Names: Wild Oats, Oatstraw, Oatgrass, Catgrass,
Botanical Name: Avena sativa, A. fatua
Botanical Family: Poaceae
Taste: Sweet, bland
Energetics: Neutral, moist
Actions:Nutritive, nervine, nervous system trophorestorative
Parts Used: Dried aerial parts or tops harvested during milky phase.
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a warm spring wind rustling through a vibrantly green patch of Oats. Bowed with the weight of their ripening fruit, they nod and toss their heads with each breeze. Their sweet smell and long smooth leaves certainly invite us to sit down and get acquainted with them. In case you can’t tell, Avena is a favorite plant of mine, both as a beautiful living plant and as a primary medicine in my materia medica.
Many people think of gruel or porridge when they hear the word Oats. For some, this is a pleasant association of home-cooked food and for others, not so much. Most don’t necessarily connect Oats to medicine or even to a live plant but rather to that flaky brown stuff in the round cardboard container many of us grew up with.
And yet, Avena has its origins in a wild plant that has spread so well and so widely that even experts are unclear on exactly where it first began. Feral and cultivated Oats are one of our best nervines, nerve tonics and overall supplementing tonics. As weeds and wild things, they require little from human hands to make themselves at home and proliferate at will. There’s a lesson to be had in their tenacious vibrancy and in the particular medicine they provide us. In their capacity to restore frayed nerves and tired minds, they also give us the gift of returning to our original wild selves with renewed energy and vigor.
Avena is one of those mild herbs that I was at first rather skeptical of. I found myself wondering if it actually ~did~ much of anything, outside of providing vitamins and minerals. Yes, yes, I know what the books say, but I’ll admit that I’m rarely convinced of anything just by reading about it. In my world, experience will prove something out, or not. That the fresh tincture of the milky tops worked as an effective nervous system trophorestorative I had little doubt of after many case studies where the plant did indeed make a significant difference. But it’s taken me much longer to make what I feel is a fair and accurate assessment of the dried plant used as an infusion. This monograph is a summary of just that – my experiences working with Oatstraw with family, friends, clients and myself.
Avena is a consistent, safe and effective nutritive tonic for those suffering from exhaustion from overwork or emotional trauma. Often there will be symptoms of irritability, chronic fatigue, inability to focus, loss of libido and sometimes heart palpitations. The loss of libido is often directly related to the other symptoms, as it can be difficult to be fully present and physically engaged when dealing with anxiety and bone-deep tiredness. However, it does appear that Avena has a more specific effect on the endocrine system as well, promoting balanced menstrual cycles and sexual health. And proving the old saying about sowing one’s oats. This is even more true when the Avena is combined with an adaptogenic/tonic herb such as Withania.
Avena is most indicated when there is a combination of anxiety and restlessness (often accompanied by insomnia) with some level of depression, mental fatigue and inability to focus. It’s great for that “tired but wired” feeling so many of experience after long periods of overwork (or child rearing), especially if there is a history of lack of adequate sleep. It’s also an excellent tonic for those whose nervous systems are worn down or fried from substance abuse of any kind. Additionally, I have seen it significantly reduce the occurrence of chronic tension headaches brought on by anxiety, overwork, menstrual cycle and/or exhaustion.
The herb can be very helpful where there are palpitations triggered by tiredness and endocrine imbalance. Avena has a long reputation as a mild cardiotonic, and while I’m not sure if the mode of action is simply through its effect on the nervous system or if there is a more direct impact on the heart itself but I have definitely seen it reduce the frequency and severity of heart palpitations clearly brought on by stress, although I prefer the dried plant combined with the use of the fresh plant tincture of the milky tops in such cases. From King’s American Dispensatory:
This plant is a nerve-tonic, stimulant, and antispasmodic. It ranks among the most important restoratives for conditions depending upon nervous prostration, and for the nervous exhaustion consequent upon typhoid and other low fevers, and the accidental disorders arising from these complaints, as weak heart, spermatorrhoea, insomnia, etc. In enfeebled states of the heart muscle it acts as a good tonic to improve the energy of the organ, and is recommended by Prof Webster to prevent relapsing cardiac rheumatism. In this condition it is not thought to be specially antirheumatic, but rather to strengthen that debility upon which the rheumatic diathesis depends, so that the patient is less subject to atmospheric and other impressions.
Avena has neither overt relaxant or stimulating actions, but instead seems to heal and nourish the nervous system so that the body can respond appropriately to stimulus rather than overreacting with either depression or anxiety. Its soothing character and neutral energetic profile makes it appropriate for nearly anyone, including children and those weak from deficiency or long illness. Herbalist Thomas Avery Garran specifically says that:
Oat is a gentle supplementing medicinal. Its action of supplementing both yin and qi is somewhat unique and makes it appropriate for many patterns affecting an extraordinary number of patients in the West. Coupled with its [ability] to nourish the heart and calm the spirit, these supplementing properties make oat extremely important in modern practice…
Keep in mind that Avena is a nutritive, gentle herb and can take time to have a noticeable effect. While some people, especially those with extreme exhaustion, can feel the soothing touch of the plant right away, many only notice the effects after 4-6 weeks of consistent use. If symptoms are severe and a more rapid resolution is needed, consider using the tincture of the fresh milky heads in addition to the Oatstraw. The tincture doesn’t replace the mineral-rich water-based preparations of Oatstraw, but it usually has a quicker action and they work very well when used in tandem.
Some herbalists are of the opinion that only the fresh plant tincture of the milky tops is the only part of the plant worth using, but I have found in my practice that the dried green herb also has great value. This is in part due to its impressive mineral profile, but also because of its gentle nervine effect. I consider the tincture and the dried plant to be somewhat different medicines, and often use them concurrently.
Oatstraw is the foundation of many of my nourishing infusion blends for clients with nervous system depletion, endocrine deficiency and general lack of energy and mental clarity. The infusion is quite pleasant tasting, light, slightly nutty, grassy and sweet and with a bit of honey, even most children can be convinced to indulge in a cup of Oatstraw. It’s hard to go wrong with Avena, and it will often help and almost never harm or cause complications. It is a core restorative, and very much a tonic in the sense that it replenishes and supplements at a deep level rather than simply stimulating surface function. I can’t emphasize how needed and vital these sorts of medicines are in an age and culture where burnout is the norm and exhaustion is expected. Do keep in mind though, that depletion needs to be addressed on every level, from lifestyle and sleep habits to nutrition and herbs. There is no one quick fix, the key is supporting the whole person.
Oats are common feral and wild plants throughout most of the US and beyond. They’re also are very easy to grow seed, even indoors or by children. Wildlife are very fond of it though, so keep it protected if you have hungry neighborhood critters. It’s ready to harvest when the immature green fruits pop when you squeeze them and emit a milky white fluid. You can harvest the whole plant or just the milky tops. If you harvest the tops and cut them back by about half, they tend to come back with a second round of fruit to harvest.
Preparations: Usually taken as an infusion, and sometimes a decoction (if primarily interested in extracting minerals).
Dosage: From 1-4 Cups of the infusion per day usually, preferably spread out through the day rather than all at once.
Considerations & Contraindications: None except that a very few people wit Celiac disease or gluten intolerance have problems with Oats in any form, sometimes because of cross-contamination with other grains during processing. Additionally, some individuals have a rare reaction specifically to Oats. Otherwise Avena is a very safe and basically a food-like herb.
Recipe: A favorite spring tonic of mine that I find very beneficial in increasing energy without overt stimulation and while simultaneously providing a sense of centered calm is a sweet and spicy blend of Oatstraw, Raspberry, Sassafras, Roses and Cinnamon. This alterative mix is both nourishing and energizing, and with a bit of honey or maple (or birch) syrup, enjoyed by both children and adults served either cold or hot.
1/2 C Oatstraw or Oat tops
1/4 Cup Raspberry (Rubus) Leaves or 1/8 C Sassafras Leaves
2 Tsp Sassafras root
2-3 large pinches of Rose (Rosa) petals
small pinch of Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) powder
Add ingredients to a quart jar. Cover with just boiled water and cover with airtight lid. Allow to infuse for 2 hours to overnight. Strain and enjoy.
Variation: For a stronger relaxant nervine effect, try substituting Peach (Prunus persica) leaves or Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves.
Resources & References:
King’s American Dispensatory (Felter-Lloyd)
Medical Herbalism (Hoffmann)
Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (Garran)
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest (Kane)
The Earthwise Herbal: Old World (Wood)