The daily rhythmicity of plasma glucocorticoid (GC) levels is a strong modulator of many physiological and psychological processes, although its functional significance is poorly understood.
The suprachiasmic nuclei of the hypothalamus have been shown to harbor a molecular clock mechanism generating circadian rhythmicity in mammals, but the same mechanism is present in many peripheral tissues and elsewhere in the brain.
Mineralocorticoid receptors and glucocorticoid receptors mediate the action of naturally occurring GC in complementary fashion.
Optimal physiological effects of GC occur when the central signal that controls the rhythm of GC release and the peripheral rhythms in tissues expressing GC receptors are aligned.
New studies suggest that misalignment of central and peripheral oscillators may increase the risk of disease, with adverse effects on the immune system, cardiovascular system and metabolism, among others prominent.
Chronopharmacological strategies that attempt to normalize the rhythm of circulating GCs have potential to improve the treatment of a wide variety of physical and mental conditions.
Adrenal glucocorticoids are major modulators of multiple functions, including energy metabolism, stress responses, immunity, and cognition. The endogenous secretion of glucocorticoids is normally characterized by a prominent and robust circadian (around 24 hours) oscillation, with a daily peak around the time of the habitual sleep-wake transition and minimal levels in the evening and early part of the night. It has long been recognized that this 24-hour rhythm partly reflects the activity of a master circadian pacemaker located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. In the past decade, secondary circadian clocks based on the same molecular machinery as the central master pacemaker were found in other brain areas as well as in most peripheral tissues, including the adrenal glands. Evidence is rapidly accumulating to indicate that misalignment between central and peripheral clocks has a host of adverse effects. The robust rhythm in circulating glucocorticoid levels has been recognized as a major internal synchronizer of the circadian system. The present review examines the scientific foundation of these novel advances and their implications for health and disease prevention and treatment.