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What is Glucocorticoid?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On Jul 20, 2011

My sister-in-law developed Cushing's syndrome from taking a glucocorticoid for asthma for too long. It is very unfortunate that she had to depend on a medicine that ultimately did her more harm than good.

Her arms and legs became thinner while her mid-section grew. Her face and neck became fat. Her skin grew fragile and bruised easily. She got stretch marks on her thighs and arms.

She also stayed tired all the time. Her high blood pressure and weakness led to irritability and depression. She stopped menstruating and started growing hair on her face.

She spends her time blogging about the negative effects of prolonged glucocorticoid use. I think she probably is helping a lot of people.

By shell4life — On Jul 19, 2011

@wavy58 - I took Prednisone as well and had the same issue of sleeplessness. I would probably take it again in the future, though, just because of how fast it helped me recover.

One more problem I had with the drug was that it made me so hungry. Every two hours, I had to eat, and it wasn’t just a mental thing. If I did not eat, I would get a gnawing pain in my stomach that made it feel like a hole was burning through it. Eating something as small as a cracker eased the pain.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 19, 2011

I took Dexamethasone to relieve the inflammation of arthritis. This prescription glucocorticoid actually eased my condition quite a bit.

As with most glucocorticoids, side effects occurred. I became very bloated in my mid-section. I don’t know if it was gas, water, or something else, but I could only eat about half the amount of food I normally do before feeling full and uncomfortable.

Looking at myself sideways in the mirror, I could see that my belly appeared about three months pregnant! This happened in a matter of days.

Thankfully, doctors don’t keep patients on steroids for long periods of time. Long-term use can be dangerous.

By wavy58 — On Jul 18, 2011

My physician gave me the glucocorticoid Prednisone to help me recover from the inflammation of my severe strep throat. While it had its advantages, it also produced some awful side effects.

It did its job of helping me recover amazingly quick. Within one day, the swelling in my throat had subsided. For strep throat, that is an amazing feat.

Also, I had more strength and energy than I had felt in a long time. I got so much done in the way of remodeling and cleaning my house. However, this was because I could not rest.

Prednisone made me unable to sleep. I would lie awake obsessing over one thought, such as a recipe or action, and I could not get it out of my head.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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