Oats. A monograph for foragers

Oats. The ancient grain with remarkable healing powers.

Avena sativa & Avena fatua

Oats / wild oats

Poaceae family



Cereal grain crops continue to be the dominant component of human diets, comprising more than a third of what we eat. Oats are my favourite grain because it can be used as a preventative and curative medicine for a number of serious diseases.

The common wild oat is one of 15 species in the genus, which are found growing wild in North Africa, South-Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The generic name Avena is the old Roman name given to the plant. The specific name sativa is from the Latin, meaning cultivated.

The wild form (Avena fatua) is thought to have originated in Southern Europe, and subsequently brought northwards by various tribes during the Iron Age, eventually becoming the major sustenance crop of Scotland.

In the more northern climates, the oat enjoys the climate, requiring more moisture and humidity than wheat to grow well, especially in early summer. In the wild, the oat is a natural lowland plant, typically growing at elevations up to 280 metres or so.

Oats are one of the seed crops absolutely suited to growing in temperate zones such as Britain. Although the wild form is reasonably common in Britain, the chances of seeing cultivated oats growing in your garden are pretty slim, although it can occasionally be spotted by roadsides having escaped cultivation, as well as in alleyways and such like.

Wild oats will often be found populating agricultural land and meadows, as well as roadsides and waste-grounds, here in Britain and throughout Northern Europe.

The cultivated oats (A.sativa) has a smooth stem and grows to roughly 90 cm high when flowering (compared to the wild oat which often reaches 140-160 cm high). Both plants have linear-lanceolate, parallel veined, rough leaves.

The flowers of both species are borne on loose spreading panicles which form sizeable, pendulous spikelets that eventually contain pale gold / brown seeds. It is these seeds that are instantly recognisable to many people when in their processed forms of rolled oats and oatmeal.

Parts used – Seed and straw.

Harvest – Seeds when ripe; straw following harvest.

Key constituents – Saponins; flavonoids; minerals (magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium); alkaloids; steroidal compounds; vitamins B1, B2, D, E; carotene, avenanthramide, gluten; starch; fat.

Actions – Nervine-restorative, relaxant, nutritive, mild diuretic, lipid- lowering, hypoglycaemic.

Pharmacology and Uses – Until recently, oats might have been seen as the poor relation amongst the cereals due to a reputation for having a poorer nutritive profile than wheat or barley.

The dried grain contains more moisture than most other cereals, and is prone to going rancid more quickly than wheat, for example. For this reason, the Romans apparently only fed oats to horses, and even today, only 4-5% of all oats grown are for human consumption.

However, recent research has begun to reveal the outstanding nutritional / medicinal benefits to be gleaned from eating oats. One of which is a potential lifesaver…the carbohydrate fibre, ‘beta-glucan’.

Oats and beta glucan

Oats, oat bran, and the various grades of oatmeal available all contain beta-glucan. Since 1963, study after study has proven the beneficial effects of this special fibre on our cholesterol levels.

Research has established that for individuals with high cholesterol, consuming just 3 grams of soluble oat fibre per day (an amount found in one bowl of oatmeal) typically lowers total cholesterol by 8-23%. This is significant since each 1% drop in cholesterol levels reportedly translates to an approximate 2% decrease in the risk of developing heart disease.

A number of studies have reliably determined that beta-glucan also has beneficial effects for sufferers of diabetes. Research carried out by the Optimum Nutrition Institute of London (pioneers in modern nutritional health care) and other similar research organisations, has regularly reported that people with Type 2 diabetes given foods high in this type of oat fibre (or oatmeal or oat bran rich foods), experienced much lower rises in blood sugar compared to those who were given white rice or bread.

Beta-glucan also significantly enhances the human immune system’s response to bacterial infection. As well as helping our neutrophils (the most abundant type of non-specific immune cell) navigate to the site of an infection more quickly, beta-glucan also enhances their ability to eliminate bacteria they find there.

Oats and cholesterol

Oats enable the production, assimilation and transportation of high-density-lipo-proteins (HDL), popularly called ‘good cholesterol’. As a result, oats are a great preventative medicine. Lipo-proteins enable cholesterol and tri-gycerides to be transported in the bloodstream. HDL are the smallest and most dense of the five major groups of lipo-proteins.

Up to 30% of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Cholesterol deposited within an arterial atheroma (see cardiovascular chapter) is now believed to be removed by HDL and transported away to the liver for excretion or re-use.

This contrasts to low-density-lipo-proteins (LDL), which are known as ‘bad cholesterol’ because high levels in the blood can penetrate the endothelium (lining of artery walls), and initiate the beginning of plaque deposits. ‘Statin’ drugs are frequently prescribed to patients with high levels of LDL.

Furthermore, low levels of HDL in the diet will mean that cholesterol transport in the blood becomes inefficient, and allows for an increasing build up of cholesterol in the vessel wall. This can quickly lead to cardio-vascular diseases, for which other common herbs to to help were documented in my article on herbs to help the cardio vascular system.

Oxidation of LDL also results in severe vascular damage. Commonly, ageing individuals have a reduced internal production of anti-oxidants. A recent discovery from oats reveals that a reduction of LDL oxidation and other cardio-protective actions has been documented for the polyphenol avenanthramide, which suggests oats will protect against the common cardio-vascular disease, atherosclerosis. Avenanthramide is only found in oats.

The grain and the straw are recognised as excellent nerve tonics. The oat can assist recovery from nervous exhaustion due to stress, depression, and lethargy; even helping us to cope better in difficult emotional times by acting as a daily preventative medicine. Other herbs to help the nervous system will be found in this article in the reclaiming health autonomy series

Oats as a healing food par excellence

As a nervine restorative food, oat seeds are quite simply…super! Imagine the glutinous oats soothing frayed nerve endings. These simple grains nourish, protect and help restore correct nervous function.

Oatmeal, when moistened and applied topically will also be useful in relieving itching from rashes such as chicken pox, eczema, cold sores, and shingles.

Oat straw has traditional use in a tea to promote bone health due to its mineral content. Oats and other whole grains are a rich source of magnesium – a mineral that acts as a ‘co-factor’ for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body’s use of glucose, as well as insulin secretion.

Co-factors are molecules needed by enzymes for a number of reasons, such as to enable transportation between cells or within the bloodstream, or for creating specific molecular shapes required to reach various targets in the body, and sometimes simply in order for the enzyme to function correctly.

Rolled oats are a good source of calcium for pregnant women and nursing mothers. This is because they help guarantee that mum’s calcium store in her skeleton does not get depleted by the demands of the growing baby.

“When young, sow wild oats…When old, grow sage”

Oats are also a very good source of selenium. This trace element is a necessary co-factor of an important antioxidant, glutathione peroxidase, and works together with vitamin E in numerous, vital anti-oxidant systems throughout the body ncluding sperm production in the testes.

Vitamin E is also known as ‘tocopherol’, from the Greek word ‘toco’ for birth and is vital for the proper production of sperm. This vitamin is found in profusion in green leaves as well as nuts, grains, and seeds.

Low levels of vitamin E are known to lead to low sperm count. In addition, selenium is involved in our body’s repairing of DNA, (Deoxyribonucleic acid, our genetic code), and has also been repeatedly associated with reducing the risk of cancer, especially cancer of the colon.

Now, will you be having porridge for breakfast tomorrow?

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