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How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory, and preparative actions.

R M Sapolsky, L M Romero, A U Munck

Endocr. Rev., 2000 Feb , 21, 55-89

The secretion of glucocorticoids (GCs) is a classic endocrine response to stress. Despite that, it remains controversial as to what purpose GCs serve at such times. One view, stretching back to the time of Hans Selye, posits that GCs help mediate the ongoing or pending stress response, either via basal levels of GCs permitting other facets of the stress response to emerge efficaciously, and/or by stress levels of GCs actively stimulating the stress response. In contrast, a revisionist viewpoint posits that GCs suppress the stress response, preventing it from being pathologically overactivated. In this review, we consider recent findings regarding GC action and, based on them, generate criteria for determining whether a particular GC action permits, stimulates, or suppresses an ongoing stress-response or, as an additional category, is preparative for a subsequent stressor. We apply these GC actions to the realms of cardiovascular function, fluid volume and hemorrhage, immunity and inflammation, metabolism, neurobiology, and reproductive physiology. We find that GC actions fall into markedly different categories, depending on the physiological endpoint in question, with evidence for mediating effects in some cases, and suppressive or preparative in others. We then attempt to assimilate these heterogeneous GC actions into a physiological whole.