Each fall, as the wheel of the year turns toward harvest festivals and the gathering of grains, I give a nod of gratitude to oats. When they are properly prepared, oats, along with the other beloved grains, offer true nourishment to our entire being, building strength and stamina in the physical body, protecting the nerves and membranes so that the mind can function unhindered, and (simply by virtue of being “plant medicine”) connecting our inner spirit with a greater spirit. As holistic practitioners, we consider the proper functioning of the body and the mind, when tied together and in alignment with spirit, to be an optimal state of being.
Time of Year
Twelve weeks after the seeds have been sown — around midsummer where I am in New York — the oats are ready for harvest, although they are left to dry, or “cure,” for weeks, making them a part of the early fall’s “first harvest.”
- The seeds, with their hulls painstakingly removed, become oats, oatmeal, and oat flour. It is a grain that is easily grown and consumed by many cultures throughout the world.
- The stalk of the oat plant, commonly known as “oatstraw,” makes a tea or herbal infusion that is considered both gentle and nourishing throughout every stage of life.
- “Milky tops” may sound unusual or esoteric, but they are simply the early stages of seed development, when the nervine properties are most medicinal. These are usually made immediately into tinctures to be used by herbalists for specific ailments.
At Brooklyn Herborium, we teach our holistic herbalists to honor two gifts: the gift of Mother Nature, in knowing the plant as it comes from the ground, and the gift of our Wise Women ancestors, who passed from generation to generation the knowledge of how to use the plant. (Note for those who are new to the tradition: One does not need to have two X chromosomes to be a Wise Woman.)
Like most grains, the oat must have its outer hull removed (and preferably returned to the earth as compost or nourishment for animals), and the cell walls need to get broken down (usually by heat or fermentation) so that we humans can digest them.
Beyond its folk usages, the use of oats in skincare products has been well studied and approved by the scientific community. This is what modern professionals have determined oats are “good for” topically:
- Reducing inflammation and soothing itchiness: A 2008 study published in the Archives of Dermatological Research examined oats in relation to the skin. Researchers found that the phytochemicals and avenanthramides in oats reduced inflammation and scratching and concluded that oats contain active ingredients that soothe the skin by reducing irritants. A 2010 review in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology stated that oats are effective in treating psoriasis, dermatitis, and rashes.
- Helping to heal a compromised skin barrier: Oats contain polysaccharides, which become gooey in water and make a fine barrier that protects the skin’s own barrier as it heals.
- Building moisture: Oats contain a silky, lubricating compound that soothes the upper layers of the epidermis without giving the skin the message to produce less of its own oil.
- Providing defense: Proteins in oats can help the skin maintain strong yet flexible structural integrity, which is crucial for the skin to act as the body’s first line of defense.
- Cleansing pores: Oats create natural cleansing agents called saponins that gently remove oxidized oil and dirt from the pores.
Topical Oatstraw Infusion
A strong herbal infusion (one tablespoon of oatstraw per cup of hot water, steeped for up to eight hours) applied to the skin in the morning, via a compression towel or poured into a medium-sized bowl and used to flush out the skin by splashing and what we call “facial bathing” (putting your face in the herbal infusion cupped between your palms), is extraordinarily useful if your skin tends to get irritated or inflamed.
Topical Oatmeal Mask
Whether you make your oatmeal mask out of the type of oatmeal that you would eat or out of oat flour, you will want to use super-hot water to break down the cell walls of the plant in order to get the most out of it.
Alternatively, you could let it soak for hours in yogurt and let the probiotic bacteria and lactic acid do the work for you.
Colloidal oats (those that have been prepared in such a way that they are easily broken down into water) or regular oats may be added to a bath both for relaxation and to soothe dry or irritated skin. Use hot water to draw the bath and let it cool, or, to conserve energy, heat it in a pan first and add it to your bath. If you are using whole oats, it is a good idea to tie them up in a little baggie so that they don’t clog your drain! It’s also lovely to use the little baggie like a poultice or washcloth to buff the skin while you soak.
Oatstraw Makes a Delicious Beverage!
Oatstraw, the dried stalk of the plant, is a well-known restorative that herbalists use to help the body recover from periods when the “output” has been greater than the “input” (think: grind culture, adrenal fatigue, stimulant reliance, etc.), or when someone is generally worn down. I have found that when you need it, it tastes especially delicious.
When you are making it for a gentle, enjoyable beverage, use less of the herb and a shorter (20-minute? four-hour?) steeping time. When you are focusing on a specific condition, use more of the herb, and steep it for a longer time. (Oatstraw steeped for longer than eight hours tends to get funky, though!) If you are making a large batch, you will want to remove the herb and refrigerate after steeping. Many people find it refreshing when it’s cold.
Examples of Specific Situations Where Wise Women Turn to Oatstraw:
- Breast feeding: Traditionally, both oatmeal and oatstraw infusions have been used to improve the quality of breast milk. Adding certain seeds, such as fenugreek, can also boost the quantity. I also started allowing my own children to start sipping oatstraw “tea” out of little cups with their meals at around 8 months old. (Do not add honey until the baby is over a year old, and even then, it’s not necessary.)
- Quitting tobacco: There is an interaction between the effects of nicotine and caffeine in the body whereby nicotine diminishes the sensational feelings of caffeine by approximately one half. It can be extremely helpful to a person who is trying to quit smoking to replace one half of their daily caffeine consumption with an oatstraw herbal infusion in order to reduce cravings for nicotine. (The tincture may also be used, particularly if the person quitting smoking experiences frazzled nerves!)
What About Oat Milk?
Though the milky substance made from oats blended with water may be preferable to other beverages you may enjoy, it is not really a traditional food and may not be that easy for some people to digest. Unless you have super-strong digestion, uncooked oats (the oats in oat milk need to be uncooked, because once you cook them, all the wonderful mucilaginous properties come out, and your milk becomes a gooey mess) are super-hard to digest, even if they have been blended. In addition, commercial oat milks tend to contain additives to improve the texture, and those may not be quite so beneficial.
If you are into oat milk and want to make your own, experiment with soaking your oats overnight (perhaps even in a probiotic water, such as kefir or whey) before you blend and strain them, to improve the final consistency and bioavailability of the nutrients — and don’t forget to save the oats to put into your waffles, crackers, or cookies!
Oat As a Lifetime Companion
If you have little to no experience with oats, I hope that I have given you a good reason to go searching for some this fall and winter. You may just find an ally that you can turn to again and again for each and every season of your life.
By Emma Graves
Emma, a certified herbalist and highly skilled aesthetician, has been working in natural skin care since 1998. She originally developed the Between You & the Moon product line to serve her clients in finding a method of natural, holistic skin care that provided tangible results. A 4+ generation holistic practitioner, Emma chronicled her love of skin care and holistic methods in her early blog “The Pimple Whisperer,” some of which is still available on this website.