Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones that help regulate the immune system. They also play a key role in the metabolism of fats, proteins, and glucose. Glucocorticoids come in natural and synthetic forms.

The body’s adrenal glands produce natural glucocorticoids. A person can also take synthetic glucocorticoids to help manage inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases.

This article outlines what glucocorticoids are, the conditions they can treat, and how they work. It also provides information on the potential risks and side effects of glucocorticoids and offers advice on when to consult a doctor.

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Glucocorticoids are a group of corticosteroids that help regulate inflammation and suppress immune reactions. They also play an important role in metabolizing the following:

Glucocorticoids may be natural or synthetic. Natural glucocorticoids are made inside the body and manufactured synthetic glucocorticoids.

Natural glucocorticoids

The adrenal glands sit just above the kidneys. They produce the naturally occurring glucocorticoid cortisol. The brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland work together to stimulate the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

In humans, cortisol fulfills numerous roles, including:

  • reducing inflammation
  • suppressing the immune system to prevent immune system overreactions, such as in allergies and autoimmune diseases
  • regulating sleep and mood
  • metabolizing substances, such as glucose, fats, and proteins

Synthetic glucocorticoids

Synthetic glucocorticoids fulfill a similar role to natural glucocorticoids. Doctors sometimes prescribe them to treat medical conditions that affect the immune and endocrine systems.

Synthetic glucocorticoids suppress the immune system, thereby helping to alleviate the following:

Glucocorticoids can help treat conditions in which the immune system overreacts, as well as those in which the immune system’s usual reaction is harmful. We outline some examples below.

Allergies and asthma

Allergies cause the immune system to overreact to harmless substances. Glucocorticoids may prevent allergic reactions or help reverse them when they occur.

A doctor may prescribe glucocorticoids to treat the following:

Autoimmune conditions

Autoimmune conditions that cause the body to attack healthy tissue often respond well to drugs that weaken the immune system.

A doctor may prescribe glucocorticoids to treat the following autoimmune conditions:

Organ rejection

Organ rejection is the medical term for when the immune system attacks a donor organ following an organ transplant. In such cases, the immune system recognizes the donor organ as a foreign object and launches a defense.

Glucocorticoids weaken the immune response, reducing the risk of organ rejection.

Inflammatory diseases

A doctor may prescribe glucocorticoids to treat conditions that cause inflammation or worsen as a result of inflammation. Examples include:

Other medical conditions

Glucocorticoids are useful in the treatment of virtually any condition that affects the immune system, including:

Examples of glucocorticoid drugs include:

Inflammation is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to respond appropriately to injury, infection, or disease. However, chronic inflammation can damage the body.

All glucocorticoids work by reducing inflammation and suppressing the usual immune reaction. They do so by binding to glucocorticoid receptors on cells. This triggers a chain of events that causes the cell to increase its expression of anti-inflammatory proteins while suppressing its expression of proinflammatory proteins.

Glucocorticoids also help regulate and activate a variety of other chemicals and hormones involved in the immune reaction and metabolism.

Many different body systems depend on glucocorticoids to function as they should. As such, taking glucocorticoids can cause changes to a person’s physical and mental health.

As glucocorticoids affect many different processes in the body, they can cause a wide range of side effects. One of the most significant is immunosuppression, which is the medical term for a weakened immune system. Immunosuppression may make a person more vulnerable to infections.

Some other potential side effects of glucocorticoids include:

Side effects may be more likely to occur in older people and those who take glucocorticoids for a prolonged period.

It is also important to note that anyone taking glucocorticoids for long periods should consult a doctor for advice on discontinuing use safely. This is because abrupt discontinuation can cause dangerous side effects.

Corticosteroids are steroid hormones that the body’s adrenal glands produce. There are two types of corticosteroids: glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids. While all glucocorticoids are corticosteroids, not all corticosteroids are glucocorticoids. However, people sometimes use the two terms interchangeably.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following while taking glucocorticoids:

Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones that help regulate the immune system. The adrenal glands create natural glucocorticoids, while doctors prescribe synthetic glucocorticoids to treat certain health conditions.

Synthetic glucocorticoids can help manage various diseases, including inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, allergies, and certain cancers.

Prolonged use of synthetic glucocorticoids increases the risk of side effects, such as stomach ulcers, glaucoma, and diabetes. A person who experiences side effects while taking glucocorticoids should notify a doctor. They should also discuss safe discontinuation to avoid further severe side effects.