A glucocorticoid is a type of steroid hormone which is produced in the cortex of the adrenal gland: cortisol is probably the most well known and common example of a glucocorticoid. These hormones have a number of important functions in the body, and they may also be administered in synthetic form to treat specific medical conditions. Excessive levels of glucocorticoids result in a condition called hyperadrenocorticism, while low levels are known as hypoadrenocorticism. Both conditions require medical attention, as they can lead to serious health problems including permanent damage or death.
As the inclusion of “gluco-” in the name of this group of hormones suggests, glucocorticoids are involved in the metabolism of glucose. When these hormones were first discovered, researchers noted their role in glucose metabolism first, later realizing that a glucocorticoid can also be involved in the metabolism of other substances in the body. Glucocorticoids also play a role in fetal development, and in the body's response to inflammation.
Inflammations occur when the immune system responds to a threat, but sometimes the inflammation persists even after the threat has been neutralized. This is when glucocorticoids come into play, as they reach the site of the inflammation and break down the overactive immune system cells to bring the inflammation to a halt. This is why glucocorticoids are often prescribed to people suffering from inflammations.
When people think of “steroids,” they often visualize the anabolic steroids which have caused such controversy in the athletic community. Glucocorticoids are actually catabolic steroids, which means that they are designed to break things down, rather than building them up. Glucocorticoids can be distinguished from other types of steroid hormones because they attach to the glucocorticoid receptor, a structure found in almost all cells which allows a glucocorticoid to interact directly with a cell in any area of the body.
An excess of glucocorticoids can arise when the adrenal gland starts to overproduce them, or when someone is taking too many prescription glucocorticoid drugs. Low levels can occur when someone is battling an infection or inflammation. Altered glucocorticoid levels in the body can cause a variety of symptoms, as the change in levels wreaks havoc on the metabolism. If the levels are too low, they can be addressed by giving the medication glutocorticoid medications, while high levels may require an adjustment to the patient's medications, or additional medical interventions to deal with an overactive adrenal gland.