Cortisol Out of Control? An Ancient Herbal Formula Addresses This Very Modern Problem

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Feeling run-down, but still can't sleep well at night? Jill Blakeway, DACM, a doctor of Chinese medicine, says this is common among her stressed-out patients. Here, the Well+Good Council member shares what's going on—and how an ancient herbal formula might relieve your symptoms.

Are you tired during the day but have trouble sleeping at night? Do you find yourself putting on weight too easily or craving sugar?

If so, you are not alone. Many of my patients tell me that they feel exhausted all day, yet at night they find that—no matter how tired they are—they sleep fitfully. They wake up the next day feeling groggy and craving a cup of coffee to help them focus. They tell me their metabolism seems sluggish; they complain of putting on “unfair” weight.

A cortisol imbalance can lead to hormone imbalances, digestive problems, low libido, and immune issues.

The culprit could be cortisol, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, which look like two little hats sitting on top of our kidneys. Cortisol has a wide range of effects on the body, the sum of which gives us energy to deal with life’s daily stressors. In an ideal world, our cortisol would be higher in the morning to wake us up and help us through our day, then lower in the evening so that we can wind down and sleep. In other words, healthy people are able to moderate their stress response in a way that allows them to meet the challenges they face before switching gears to relax. When we become overwhelmed, our bodies have trouble making these transitions, and we feel anxious and unsettled or tired and foggy. (In some cases, both!)

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A cortisol imbalance can affect more than our mood, however. It can also lead to hormone imbalances, digestive problems, low libido, and immune issues. Plus, it can be the cause of an expanding waistline: Excess cortisol prompts our bodies to crave sugar and to hold onto fat, a combination that leads to weight gain and a sluggish metabolism.

It’s easy to presume this is a modern problem—that our fast-paced lives are making us hyper-vigilant, which in turn makes it hard to wind down at the end of the day. But what if I told you that Chinese doctors were addressing the same syndrome in 1253 CE? In that year, during the Song Dynasty, herbalist Yan Hong-he designed an herbal formula called Gui Pi Tang. It’s a careful balance of herbs that helps modulate stress hormones by relieving anxiety and supplementing energy, and it’s still used today because it works! In fact, nothing meets the needs of my “tired and wired” patients better than Gui Pi Tang.

It’s easy to presume this is a modern problem—but what if I told you that Chinese doctors were addressing the same syndrome in 1253 CE?

Why does it work? Because it’s cleverly designed to restore balance. In doing so, it smooths out fluctuations in cortisol production. It contains qi and blood tonics to boost energy in combination with nourishing sedatives to calm the mind alongside herbs that support digestion, boost metabolism, and curb sugar cravings.

So if you find yourself putting on weight and are too tired to exercise, or you feel foggy all day but overthink at night, Gui Pi Tang may be an ancient solution for a seemingly modern problem. To get your hands on some, visit your local practitioner of Chinese medicine. Chinese herbal formulas vary in quality and potency, depending on their manufacturer, and a licensed acupuncturist will have the experience to help you source good-quality, effective herbs. (Here’s a helpful checklist if you are trying to find an acupuncturist near you.) And may your energy soon be smooth, consistent, and thriving.

Dr. Jill Blakeway, DACM, is a practitioner and teacher of Chinese Medicine and the founder and clinic director of the YinOva Center in New York City.

Jill is the author of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility and Sex Again: Recharging Your Libido. She's currently writing her third book, about energy healing, for Harper Collins.

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