General Adaptation in Critical Illness: Glucocorticoid Receptor-alpha Master Regulator of Homeostatic Corrections

Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2020 Apr 22;11:161. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2020.00161. eCollection 2020.


In critical illness, homeostatic corrections representing the culmination of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, are modulated by the activated glucocorticoid receptor alpha (GRα) and are associated with an enormous bioenergetic and metabolic cost. Appreciation of how homeostatic corrections work and how they evolved provides a conceptual framework to understand the complex pathobiology of critical illness. Emerging literature place the activated GRα at the center of all phases of disease development and resolution, including activation and re-enforcement of innate immunity, downregulation of pro-inflammatory transcription factors, and restoration of anatomy and function. By the time critically ill patients necessitate vital organ support for survival, they have reached near exhaustion or exhaustion of neuroendocrine homeostatic compensation, cell bio-energetic and adaptation functions, and reserves of vital micronutrients. We review how critical illness-related corticosteroid insufficiency, mitochondrial dysfunction/damage, and hypovitaminosis collectively interact to accelerate an anti-homeostatic active process of natural selection. Importantly, the allostatic overload imposed by these homeostatic corrections impacts negatively on both acute and long-term morbidity and mortality. Since the bioenergetic and metabolic reserves to support homeostatic corrections are time-limited, early interventions should be directed at increasing GRα and mitochondria number and function. Present understanding of the activated GC-GRα's role in immunomodulation and disease resolution should be taken into account when re-evaluating how to administer glucocorticoid treatment and co-interventions to improve cellular responsiveness. The activated GRα interdependence with functional mitochondria and three vitamin reserves (B1, C, and D) provides a rationale for co-interventions that include prolonged glucocorticoid treatment in association with rapid correction of hypovitaminosis.

Keywords: critical illness; glucocorticoid receptor-alpha; hypovitaminosis; mitochondria; nuclear factor-κB.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / drug effects
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Avitaminosis / complications
  • Avitaminosis / genetics
  • Avitaminosis / metabolism
  • Critical Illness* / rehabilitation
  • Energy Metabolism* / drug effects
  • Energy Metabolism* / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Glucocorticoids / deficiency
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology
  • Homeostasis / drug effects
  • Homeostasis / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / physiology*


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • glucocorticoid receptor alpha