Latin Name: Avena sativa, Avena fatua
Common Names: Milky Oats, Wild Oats, Catgrass
Energetics: Neutral to Sl. Warm, Sl. Moist
Actions: Nervous and endocrine resorative, relaxant and stimulant nervine, antispasmodic
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.
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.
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 of the wild spp. may be ready sometime near the beginning of May, but in general the cultivated spp tend to be closer to the beginning of July, and can continue on until the first hard frost.
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.
Ellingwood may have described it best in his overview of Avena:
“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.
Ashwagandha 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. And 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