Glucocorticoid hormones are both a major circadian signal and major stress signal: How this shared signal contributes to a dynamic relationship between the circadian and stress systems

Front Neuroendocrinol. 2018 Apr;49:52-71. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2017.12.005. Epub 2017 Dec 26.


Glucocorticoid hormones are a powerful mammalian systemic hormonal signal that exerts regulatory effects on almost every cell and system of the body. Glucocorticoids act in a circadian and stress-directed manner to aid in adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Circadian glucocorticoid secretion provides for a daily waxing and waning influence on target cell function. In addition, the daily circadian peak of glucocorticoid secretion serves as a timing signal that helps entrain intrinsic molecular clock phase in tissue cells distributed throughout the body. Stress-induced glucocorticoid secretion also modulates the state of these same cells in response to both physiological and psychological stressors. We review the strong functional interrelationships between glucocorticoids and the circadian system, and discuss how these interactions optimize the appropriate cellular and systems response to stress throughout the day. We also discuss clinical implications of this dual aspect of glucocorticoid signaling, especially for conditions of circadian and HPA axis dysregulation.

Keywords: Circadian; Clock genes; Corticosterone; Cortisol; Glucocorticoid receptor; HPA axis; Jet lag; Post traumatic stress disorder; Stress; Suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Steroid / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / metabolism*


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Steroid