Glucocorticoid (GC) is an adrenal steroid hormone that controls a variety of physiological processes such as metabolism, immune response, cardiovascular activity, and brain function. In addition to GC induction in response to stress, even in relatively undisturbed states its circulating level is subjected to a robust daily variation with a peak around the onset of the active period of the day. It has long been believed that the synthesis and secretion of GC are primarily regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) neuroendocrine axis. However, recent chronobiological research strongly supports the idea that multiple regulatory mechanisms along with the classical HPA neuroendocrine axis underlie the diurnal rhythm of circulating GC. Most notably, recent studies demonstrate that the molecular circadian clockwork is heavily involved in the daily GC rhythm at multiple levels. The daily GC rhythm is implicated in various human diseases accompanied by abnormal GC levels. Patients with such diseases frequently show a blunted GC rhythmicity and, more importantly, circadian rhythm-related symptoms. In this review, we focus on recent advances in the understanding of the circadian regulation of adrenal GC and its implications in human health and disease.
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