All living organisms have developed a highly conserved and regulatory system, the stress system, to cope with a broad spectrum of stressful stimuli that threaten, or are perceived as threatening, their dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis. This neuroendocrine system consists of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the locus caeruleus/norepinephrine-autonomic nervous system. In parallel with the evolution of the homeostasis and stress concepts from ancient Greek to modern medicine, significant advances in the field of neuroendocrinology have identified the physiologic biochemical effector molecules of the stress response. Glucocorticoids, the end-products of the HPA axis, play a fundamental role in the maintenance of both resting and stress-related homeostasis and, undoubtedly, influence the physiologic adaptive reaction of the organism against stressors. If the stress response is dysregulated in terms of magnitude and/or duration, homeostasis is turned into cacostasis with adverse effects on many vital physiologic functions, such as growth, development, metabolism, circulation, reproduction, immune response, cognition and behavior. A strong and/or long-lasting stressor may precipitate and/or cause many acute and chronic diseases. Moreover, stressors during pre-natal, post-natal or pubertal life may have a critical impact on our expressed genome. This review describes the central and peripheral components of the stress system, provides a comprehensive overview of the stress response, and discusses the role of glucocorticoids in a broad spectrum of stress-related diseases.

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