The physiological response to a psychological stressor broadly impacts energy metabolism. Inversely, changes in energy availability affect the physiological response to the stressor in terms of hypothalamus, pituitary adrenal axis (HPA), and sympathetic nervous system activation. Glucocorticoids, the endpoint of the HPA axis, are critical checkpoints in endocrine control of energy homeostasis and have been linked to metabolic diseases including obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Glucocorticoids, through the glucocorticoid receptor, activate transcription of genes associated with glucose and lipid regulatory pathways and thereby control both physiological and pathophysiological systemic energy homeostasis. Here, we summarize the current knowledge of glucocorticoid functions in energy metabolism and systemic metabolic dysfunction, particularly focusing on glucose and lipid metabolism. There are elements in the external environment that induce lifelong changes in the HPA axis stress response and glucocorticoid levels, and the most prominent are early life adversity, or exposure to traumatic stress. We hypothesise that when the HPA axis is so disturbed after early life adversity, it will fundamentally alter hepatic gluconeogenesis, inducing hyperglycaemia, and hence crystalise the significant lifelong risk of developing either the metabolic syndrome, or type 2 diabetes. This gives a “Jekyll and Hyde” role to gluconeogenesis, providing the necessary energy in situations of acute stress, but driving towards pathophysiological consequences when the HPA axis has been altered.
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