The history of oats for nutritional health goes back to antiquity, as far as the first century in Greek and Roman medical literature. Throughout the centuries, oats have played a major role in monastic medicine traditions. Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) wrote about the curative effect of oats, which we included in our post on ancient nutritional treatment. In this post we will explore the many health benefits of oats in more detail.
An Ancient Global Grain
Oats belong to the family of sweet grasses (Poaceae), which includes wheat, spelt, rye, and barley. The species of avena sativa is what is most widely grown and consumed; this “common oat” cereal grain is what is typically referred to as oats, but the avena genus includes over 20 different species of wild and cultivated oats.
Oats are robust and prolific, growing wild over most temperate areas of the world. Similarly, the cultivated varieties are also found on nearly every continent. Oat cultivation has a long history, having been domesticated in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, before spreading throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.
One species of interest is the aveda nuda or “naked oat”, named for its nearly hulless grain. Aveda nuda was widely cultivated in Europe before being replaced by the common oat of today. This heirloom grain lacks the hull, the tough outer layer of a grain outside the bran layer, making it easier to process and prepare. It also has a slightly higher nutrient profile than the common oat, which is part of why it is making a comeback in organic and heirloom farming.
All true grains from a grass species have a hull, but some, like modern wheat, have easily removable husks and can be hulled by simply shaking the kernel out of the hull by hand. Oats, on the other hand, like barley and spelt, have tough hulls that require a mechanized approach. Because oat grains are not formed in spikes, but rather in panicles (branched inflorescences), they are often more difficult to harvest and process than wheat, rye, etc. One advantage of oats, however, is that it can thrive in poor soil and can thus be grown at elevations of up to 5,250 feet.
The Healing Power of Oats
Hildegard’s successor, the well-known naturopath, Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) noted in his work the many healing properties of oats, including for improving skin irritations, soothing the gastrointestinal tract, and improving immune health for reducing the effects of the common cold and other ailments. Modern nutrition science supports many of the benefits identified in his work as well as those passed down through the ages.
Dieting with Oats
Today, oats are considered a particularly valuable cereal, due to the high fat content, vitamins such as B1, B6 and biotin, trace elements (iron, zinc), and magnesium, a necessary element for humans, animals and plants. In addition, oats contribute to intestinal health with a generous helping of fiber. Together these substances promote a feeling of satiety, support special defense cells, and can reduce cholesterol levels.
A diet including oats also serves may also improve the symptoms associated with type II diabetes. In contrast to comparable carbohydrates, oats can help maintain glucose levels, preventing spikes in blood sugar which have been linked with the onset of diabetes. The antioxidant found in oats (avenanthramide) acts against the formation of arteriosclerotic deposits (colloquially referred to as calcification) which is part of why oats are recommended for cardiovascular health.
In addition to the nutritional benefits, oats are also known for their external healing properties. Oats produce a natural moisturizing and soothing effect. Minor sky conditions, as well as chronic conditions like eczema and endogenous eczema, can be improved by topical applications of oats. As recently as 1997, the FDA officially recognized the health benefits of oats. And in Europe, Europe’s Commission E has recognized the natural moisturizing and anti-inflammatory affects of oats, deeming them to be an effective skin therapy. As a result, a wide range of skin-care products containing oats is now available.
Healing Applications of Oats
Oats are used medicinally via three primary modes. The most common among naturopathic remedies is the oat straw (Stramentum Avenae). More recently, the herb (Herba Avenae) and the Grain (Fructus Avenae) have garnered increasing attention for their nutritional importance.
Oat straw is often used for baths to help with skin lesions, itching, and dry skin. For this application, oats are typically harvested before flowering so that the plant retains a rich flavonoid and saponin profile and optimal levels of minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium). Flavonoids serve as anti-inflammatories and saponins possess immune-modulating properties.
Extracts of the oat herb are used to address dry and atopic (inflamed) skin. The symptoms of atopic skin include redness, dandruff, and severe itching. Skin care products made from oats, including creams, body milk, and bath additives can be excellent natural treatments for eczema and allergy sufferers. Oat extracts can also be used to effectively treat wounds and sensitive skin due to rosacea and psoriasis.
Oat herb extracts are also used in traditional German medicine to relieve minor anxiety and to improve concentration and basic cognitive ability for learning. Hildegard medicine promotes oats, among other things, as a nerve tonic, encouraging oatmeal and spelt habermus particularly when the body is weak. So oats are an ideal healing food for your children.
The fruit, or the oat grain, is used as a fully ripened grain, offering a high content of vitamins B1 and B6, and a healthy dose of fiber. Of particular interest are beta-glucans, which account for about half of the total fiber content in the oats. 100 grams of oatmeal contains about 4.5 grams of beta-glucans; in oat bran it is closer to about 8 grams per 100 grams. Beta glucan is a soluble fiber that helps improve cholesterol, digestion, metabolism, and blood glucose levels. In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed that the consumption of beta glucans from oats contributes to the reduction of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is reduced because beta glucans naturally bind with bile acids, which carry excess cholesterol. Bile acids are then excreted, taking the excess cholesterol along with it and thereby lowering cholesterol levels in the blood stream. Reducing blood serum cholesterol protects blood vessels from harmful deposits, known as plaque. Plaque deposits have been linked with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
The fiber content in oats also delays the absorption of nutrients into the blood, leading to gradual increases in blood glucose levels, and lower overall distribution of insulin. Reducing the “spike” of glucose levels after meals has been shown to reduce the onset of insulin resistance (precursor to type 2 diabetes) and help moderate glucose levels in those with diabetes.
As early as 100 years ago, oats were actively introduced into diets for patients suffering from type 2 diabetes. The German Diabetes Association (DDG – Deutscher Diabetes Gesellschaft) in Berlin demonstrated a 30% reduction in insulin administration for patients with high insulin demands after two days of oats, with the positive effects lasting for up to four weeks.
Beta-glucans also have positive effects on the digestive system. The viscous substance from the soluble fiber protects the intestinal wall from external stimuli and soothes the sensitive stomach. The insoluble dietary fibers act as a regulator on digestive activity and promote the health of the beneficial bacteria naturally present in the gut.