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Adrenal glucocorticoids are major modulators of multiple functions, including energy metabolism, stress responses, immunity, and cognition. The endogenous secretion of glucocorticoids is normally characterized by a prominent and robust circadian (around 24 hours) oscillation, with a daily peak around the time of the habitual sleep-wake transition and minimal levels in the evening and early part of the night. It has long been recognized that this 24-hour rhythm partly reflects the activity of a master circadian pacemaker located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. In the past decade, secondary circadian clocks based on the same molecular machinery as the central master pacemaker were found in other brain areas as well as in most peripheral tissues, including the adrenal glands. Evidence is rapidly accumulating to indicate that misalignment between central and peripheral clocks has a host of adverse effects. The robust rhythm in circulating glucocorticoid levels has been recognized as a major internal synchronizer of the circadian system. The present review examines the scientific foundation of these novel advances and their implications for health and disease prevention and treatment.
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