The Humble Oat (Avena Sativa) - Herbal Help for Anxiety and Depression

Image Copyright: Phil Dubois

With many patients I see, there is often an anxiety or stress element underlying their symptom picture, this can present either as anxiety itself, or as an complication to other problems, such as chronic fatigue states, skin conditions, digestive upsets and cardiovascular issues . When this is the case herbalists can turn to a specific group of herbs to help.

These herbs are often referred to collectively as nervines and will be included in as part of a wider prescription to provide gentle support for the nervous system.  These herbs work in a variety of ways and unlike many orthodox pharmaceutical drugs, the herbal approach to anxiety conditions works towards restoring the nervous system to a healthier state, rather than just managing the symptoms of anxiety, although they can help quite effectively with this too.

Within the overall group of nervines there are herbs which will act to relax the patient, to help with sleep, to stimulate nervous system and  to assist with the effects of nervous exhaustion, tension and shock. Perhaps more specifically to herbal medicine, there are also those medicinal herbs which act as tonics for the nervous system and these are used when there has been a prolonged period of stress and strain. These are sometimes referred to as nervous trophorestoratives - a trophorestorative being a remedy that restores and re-balances an organ or system

Herbal nerve tonics

Tonics are not something we hear much of in modern medicine, although they were used by GPs up until quite recently. The idea of a tonic is that it is invigorating and strengthening, something to help rebuild health. Something that perhaps we all could benefit from when difficult times have taken their toll of our physical and mental health.

This category of herbs includes the humble oat (Avena sativa). Yep! the one that you eat as porridge. Oats being a cereal are very nutritive (careful though if you are gluten intolerant - although it contains less gluten than wheat) and contain high levels of iron, zinc and manganese in comparison to other cereals. It has also more recenlty gained a reputation for lowering cholesterol.

Useful for anxiety and depression

Both the grain and the oat straw are used medicinally and herbally they are considered a thymoleptic  - a herb that can help with depression and they are used for a wide range of indications where this action is needed.  This ranges from anxiety and depressive problems in cases where there is nervous weakness and in debility following illness, so good used as an adjunctive medicine in some cases of post viral fatigue, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and post-shingles when gentle nerve support often benefits.  Gentle enough to be used where there is hyperactivity in children, oats can also help with restless sleep.  It is indicated herbally in Parkinson's or other diseases where there is nerve degeneration, although clearly this is not the whole picture and it would only be used as a support to other treatment.

Help for addiction

It also has a reputation for helping with addiction, both with alcoholism and helping to stop smoking (it's levels of zinc can help to replenish this mineral which is lost with smoking). There is also a tradition that oats can help with dealing with benzodiazepine and valium dependency

One of Nature's aphrodisiacs, useful for low libido..?

One of the less exotic aphrodisiacs of nature, the phrase 'sowing your wild oats' does indeed refer to its purported power in enhancing libido and sexual performance for both sexes.  It is likely that this reputation rests on its zinc content (a mineral particularly linked to male fertility and general health of the masculine reproductive system - including prostate health) and on its effect on the nervous system - a well functioning nervous system having a positive effect on our love lives both for emotional and for obvious functional reasons (some of which are irrevocably intertwined).

I hope you will now look with more respect at your porridge....!

This information is meant for educational purposes only and not intended as a guide to self-treatment. You should always seek professional advice.  Remember that herbs can interact with other drugs and may be contra-indicated if you have certain medical conditions, are pregnant or lactating. Take care when using wild plants or any herbs, that you have the correct species from a reliable source.
Catherine Schofield Bsc MNIMH Medical Herbalist, Stockport, Cheshire

Image Copyright: Phil Dubois

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