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Brian R Walker

Abstract

Chronic excessive activation of glucocorticoid receptors induces obesity, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, dyslipidaemia and hypertension. Subtle abnormalities of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and/or of tissue sensitivity to glucocorticoids are also associated with these cardiovascular risk factors in patients with the metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, glucocorticoids have direct effects on the heart and blood vessels, mediated by both glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors and modified by local metabolism of glucocorticoids by the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzymes. These effects influence vascular function, atherogenesis and vascular remodelling following intra-vascular injury or ischaemia. This article reviews the systemic and cardiovascular effects of glucocorticoids, and the evidence that glucocorticoids not only promote the incidence and progression of atherogenesis but also modify the recovery from occlusive vascular events and intravascular injury. The conclusion is that manipulation of glucocorticoid action within metabolic and cardiovascular tissues may provide novel therapeutic avenues to combat cardiovascular disease.

Open access

Helga A Sigurjonsdottir, Ruth Andrew, Roland H Stimson, Gudmundur Johannsson and Brian R Walker

Objective

Evidence from long-term clinical studies measuring urinary steroid ratios, and from in vitro studies, suggests that GH administered for longer than 2 months down-regulates 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11β-HSD1), thereby reducing cortisol regeneration in liver and adipose tissue. We aimed to measure acute effects of GH on 11β-HSD1 in liver and adipose tissue in vivo, including using a stable isotope tracer.

Design

Observational studies of GH withdrawal and reintroduction in patients with hypopituitarism.

Methods

Twelve men with benign pituitary disease causing GH and ACTH deficiency on stable replacement therapy for >6 months were studied after GH withdrawal for 3 weeks, and after either placebo or GH injections were reintroduced for another 3 weeks. We measured cortisol kinetics during 9,11,12,12-2H4-cortisol (d4-cortisol) infusion, urinary cortisol/cortisone metabolite ratios, liver 11β-HSD1 by appearance of plasma cortisol after oral cortisone, and 11β-HSD1 mRNA levels in subcutaneous adipose biopsies.

Results

GH withdrawal and reintroduction had no effect on 9,12,12-[2H]3-cortisol (d3-cortisol) appearance, urinary cortisol/cortisone metabolite ratios, initial appearance of cortisol after oral cortisone, or adipose 11β-HSD1 mRNA. GH withdrawal increased plasma cortisol 30–180 min after oral cortisone, increased d4-cortisol clearance, and decreased relative excretion of 5α-reduced cortisol metabolites.

Conclusions

In this setting, GH did not regulate 11β-HSD1 rapidly in vivo in humans. Altered cortisol metabolism with longer term changes in GH may reflect indirect effects on 11β-HSD1. These data do not suggest that glucocorticoid replacement doses need to be increased immediately after introducing GH therapy to compensate for reduced 11β-HSD1 activity, although dose adjustment may be required in the longer term.

Free access

Alessandra Gambineri, Flaminia Fanelli, Federica Tomassoni, Alessandra Munarini, Uberto Pagotto, Ruth Andrew, Brian R Walker and Renato Pasquali

Context

Abnormal cortisol metabolism in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) has been invoked as a cause of secondary activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and hence androgen excess. However, this is based on urinary excretion of cortisol metabolites, which cannot detect tissue-specific changes in metabolism and may be confounded by obesity.

Objective

To assess cortisol clearance and whole-body and tissue-specific activities of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11β-HSD1 (HSD11B1)) in PCOS.

Design

Case–control study.

Setting

Medical center.

Patients

A total of 20 overweight–obese unmedicated Caucasian women with PCOS, aged 18–45 years, and 20 Caucasian controls matched for age, BMI, body fat distribution, and HSD11B1 genotypes (rs846910 and rs12086634).

Main outcome measures

Cortisol metabolites were measured in 24 h urine. During steady-state 9,11,12,12-[2H]4-cortisol infusion, cortisol clearance was calculated and whole-body HSD11B1 activity was assessed as the rate of appearance of 9,12,12-2H3-cortisol (d3-cortisol). Hepatic HSD11B1 activity was quantified as the generation of plasma cortisol following an oral dose of cortisone. Subcutaneous adipose HSD11B1 activity and HSD11B1 mRNA were measured, ex vivo, in biopsies.

Results

Urinary cortisol metabolite excretion, deuterated cortisol clearance, and the rate of appearance of d3-cortisol did not differ between patients with PCOS and controls. However, hepatic HSD11B1 conversion of oral cortisone to cortisol was impaired (P<0.05), whereas subcutaneous abdominal adipose tissue HSD11B1 mRNA levels and activity were increased (P<0.05) in women with PCOS when compared with controls.

Conclusions

Tissue-specific dysregulation of HSD11B1 is a feature of PCOS, over and above obesity, whereas increased clearance of cortisol may result from obesity rather than PCOS.

Free access

Rebecca M Reynolds, Brian R Walker, Holly E Syddall, Ruth Andrew, Peter J Wood and David I W Phillips

Objective: Increased hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis activity in men of low birthweight may be an important link between early life and the adult metabolic syndrome. In animal models females are more sensitive than males to HPA axis programming, but whether gender influences susceptibility in humans is unknown.

Design: Birth cohort study.

Methods: We studied 106 women aged 67–78 years, from Hertfordshire, UK, in whom birthweight was recorded. Negative feedback sensitivity was assessed by an overnight low-dose (0.25 mg) dexa-methasone suppression test, and adrenal sensitivity by a low-dose (1 μg) ACTH1 – 24 stimulation test. Cortisol and its metabolites were analysed in a 24 h urine collection. Data were compared with previously published identical measurements in 205 men aged 66–77 years from the same cohort.

Results: In women, plasma cortisol levels after dexamethasone were lower (P < 0.0001) and peak cortisol following ACTH1 – 24 were higher (P < 0.0001) than in men, suggesting a more responsive HPA axis. As in men, women with lower birthweight had enhanced plasma cortisol responses to ACTH1 – 24 (P = 0.05 for trend) but no difference in plasma cortisol after dexamethasone or in urinary cortisol metabolite excretion. The strength of the association in women was not different from that in men; a 1 lb decrease in birthweight was associated with an incremental rise in cortisol of 12.6 nmol/l (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.4, 23.8) in men, P = 0.03, and 14.8 nmol/l (95% CI −0.4, 29.9) in women, P = 0.05 (P = 0.82 for birthweight × gender interaction). In a combined analysis of men and women adjusted for gender (n = 302), a 1 lb decrease in birthweight was associated with a 13.4 nmol/l (95% CI 4.5, 22.4) greater incremental rise in plasma cortisol, P = 0.003.

Conclusions: Associations between lower birthweight and increased HPA axis activity are similar in men and women, supporting the hypothesis that HPA axis activation is an important mechanism underlying programming of adult disease.

Open access

Rebecca M Reynolds, Javier Labad, Alison V Sears, Rachel M Williamson, Mark W J Strachan, Ian J Deary, Gordon D O Lowe, Jackie F Price and Brian R Walker

Objective

Both type 2 diabetes and glucocorticoid therapy are highly prevalent. Although people with type 2 diabetes may be more susceptible to adverse effects of glucocorticoids, and it is recommended that glucocorticoid therapy is avoided for fear of worsening glycaemic control, the extent to which this advice is followed and the consequences when glucocorticoids are prescribed are poorly documented. The aim was to assess the characteristics of people with type 2 diabetes prescribed glucocorticoids in a real-world setting and to quantify resulting adverse effects.

Design

Cross-sectional cohort study.

Methods

Cardiometabolic variables, body fat distribution, cognitive function and mood were studied in the 1066 participants of the Edinburgh Type 2 Diabetes Study, of whom 162 (15%) were taking systemic, topical or inhaled glucocorticoids.

Results

Glucocorticoid therapy was more common in women and in smokers but was not avoided in patients with diabetic complications or cardiovascular risk factors. People taking glucocorticoids were more centrally obese with slightly higher HbA1c and total serum cholesterol but were no more likely to have hepatic steatosis or hypertension. Glucocorticoid treatment was associated with substantially lower mood and greater anxiety. Women taking glucocorticoid therapy were twice as likely to report depressive symptoms compared with those not taking treatment. Glucocorticoid therapy was also associated with poorer cognitive function among those with subclinical atherosclerosis, as indicated by low ankle–brachial pressure index.

Conclusions

Glucocorticoids are prescribed commonly for people with type 2 diabetes despite being associated with adverse indices of glycaemic control, cardiovascular risk factors, mood and cognitive function.

Free access

Lina Zgaga, Veronique Vitart, Caroline Hayward, Darko Kastelan, Ozren Polašek, Miro Jakovljevic, Ivana Kolcic, Zrinka Biloglav, Alan F Wright, Harry Campbell, Brian R Walker and Igor Rudan

Objective

Stress is implicated as a risk factor for numerous illnesses in humans, putatively in part mediated by biological responses to stress, such as elevated cortisol concentrations. The theory of genetic homoeostasis suggests that individual heterozygosity facilitates compensation for environmental stresses. We hypothesized that heterozygosity ameliorates the biological response to a given level of perceived stress, reflected in lower plasma cortisol concentrations.

Design

We examined the role of heterozygosity in the association between perceived psychological stress and morning cortisol concentrations in 854 individuals from the isolated island of Vis, Croatia.

Methods

Cortisol concentrations were measured in morning plasma samples. A total of 1184 autosomal microsatellite markers were genotyped and individual multi-locus heterozygosity (MLH) was calculated as the proportion of heterozygous markers. The General Health Questionnaire with 30 items (GHQ-30) was used to assess the degree of psychological distress.

Results

Mean MLH was 34.85±0.45% (range: 31.97–36.22%). Psychological distress (GHQ Likert score >31) was more prevalent in women (37 vs 18% in men, P<0.0001), in less educated people (β=−0.35 per year in school, P<0.001) and in lower socio-economic classes (β=−3.59, P<0.0001). Cortisol concentrations were positively associated with psychological distress (β=2.20, P=0.01). In a regression model adjusted for age, BMI, education and GHQ-30 score, MLH was independently and inversely associated with morning plasma cortisol concentrations (P=0.005).

Conclusion

More heterozygous individuals, as measured by microsatellite markers, had lower morning plasma cortisol concentrations for a given level of perceived psychological stress. This may be important, as higher cortisol concentrations may increase the allostatic load and be associated with a higher risk of stress-related illness.

Free access

Alessandra Gambineri, Federica Tomassoni, Alessandra Munarini, Roland H Stimson, Roberto Mioni, Uberto Pagotto, Karen E Chapman, Ruth Andrew, Vilma Mantovani, Renato Pasquali and Brian R Walker

Objective

Regeneration of cortisol by 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11β-HSD1) within liver and adipose tissue may be of pathophysiological importance in obesity and the metabolic syndrome. single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in HSD11B1, the gene encoding 11β-HSD1, have been associated with type 2 diabetes and hypertension in population-based cohort studies, and with hyperandrogenism in patients with the polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). However, the functional consequences of these SNPs for in vivo 11β-HSD1 expression and activity are unknown.

Methods

We explored associations of well-characterised hormonal and metabolic phenotypes with two common SNPs (rs846910 and rs12086634) in HSD11B1 in 600 women (300 with PCOS) and investigated 11β-HSD1 expression and activity in a nested study of 40 women from this cohort.

Results

HSD11B1 genotypes (as single SNPs and as the combination of the two minor allele SNPs) were not associated with PCOS. Women who were heterozygous for rs846910 A and homozygous for rs12086634 T (GA, TT genotype) had a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, regardless of the diagnosis of PCOS (odds ratio in the whole cohort=2.77 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.16–6.67), P=0.023). In the nested cohort, women with the GA, TT genotype had higher HSD11B1 mRNA levels in adipose tissue, and higher rates of appearance of cortisol and d3-cortisol (16.1±0.7 nmol/min versus 12.1±1.1, P=0.044) during 9,11,12,12-2H4-cortisol (d4-cortisol) steady-state infusion.

Conclusions

We conclude that, in a population of Southern European Caucasian women with and without PCOS, alleles of HSD11B1 containing the two SNPs rs846910 A and rs12086634 T confer increased 11β-HSD1 expression and activity, which associates with the metabolic syndrome.

Open access

Thang S Han, Nils Krone, Debbie S Willis, Gerard S Conway, Stefanie Hahner, D Aled Rees, Roland H Stimson, Brian R Walker, Wiebke Arlt, Richard J Ross and the United Kingdom Congenital adrenal Hyperplasia Adult Study Executive (CaHASE)

Context

Quality of life (QoL) has been variously reported as normal or impaired in adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). To explore the reasons for this discrepancy we investigated the relationship between QoL, glucocorticoid treatment and other health outcomes in CAH adults.

Methods

Cross-sectional analysis of 151 adults with 21-hydroxylase deficiency aged 18–69 years in whom QoL (assessed using the Short Form Health Survey), glucocorticoid regimen, anthropometric and metabolic measures were recorded. Relationships were examined between QoL, type of glucocorticoid (hydrocortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone) and dose of glucocorticoid expressed as prednisolone dose equivalent (PreDEq). QoL was expressed as z-scores calculated from matched controls (14 430 subjects from UK population). Principal components analysis (PCA) was undertaken to identify clusters of associated clinical and biochemical features and the principal component (PC) scores used in regression analysis as predictor of QoL.

Results

QoL scores were associated with type of glucocorticoid treatment for vitality (P=0.002) and mental health (P=0.011), with higher z-scores indicating better QoL in patients on hydrocortisone monotherapy (P<0.05). QoL did not relate to PreDEq or mutation severity. PCA identified three PCs (PC1, disease control; PC2, adiposity and insulin resistance and PC3, blood pressure and mutations) that explained 61% of the variance in observed variables. Stepwise multiple regression analysis demonstrated that PC2, reflecting adiposity and insulin resistance (waist circumference, serum triglycerides, homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance and HDL-cholesterol), related to QoL scores, specifically impaired physical functioning, bodily pain, general health, Physical Component Summary Score (P<0.001) and vitality (P=0.002).

Conclusions

Increased adiposity, insulin resistance and use of prednisolone or dexamethasone are associated with impaired QoL in adults with CAH. Intervention trials are required to establish whether choice of glucocorticoid treatment and/or weight loss can improve QoL in CAH adults.

Open access

Andrew A Crawford, Stefan Soderberg, Clemens Kirschbaum, Lee Murphy, Mats Eliasson, Shah Ebrahim, George Davey Smith, Tommy Olsson, Naveed Sattar, Debbie A Lawlor, Nicolas J Timpson, Rebecca M Reynolds and Brian R Walker

Objective

The identification of new causal risk factors has the potential to improve cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk prediction and the development of new treatments to reduce CVD deaths. In the general population, we sought to determine whether cortisol is a causal risk factor for CVD and coronary heart disease (CHD).

Design and methods

Three approaches were adopted to investigate the association between cortisol and CVD/CHD. First, we used multivariable regression in two prospective nested case-control studies (total 798 participants, 313 incident CVD/CHD with complete data). Second, a random-effects meta-analysis of these data and previously published prospective associations was performed (total 6680 controls, 696 incident CVD/CHD). Finally, one- and two-sample Mendelian randomization analyses were performed (122,737 CHD cases, 547,261 controls for two-sample analyses).

Results

In the two prospective nested case–control studies, logistic regression adjusting for sex, age, BMI, smoking and time of sampling, demonstrated a positive association between morning plasma cortisol and incident CVD (OR: 1.28 per 1 SD higher cortisol, 95% CI: 1.06–1.54). In the meta-analysis of prospective studies, the equivalent result was OR: 1.18, 95% CI: 1.06–1.31. Results from the two-sample Mendelian randomization were consistent with these positive associations: OR: 1.06, 95% CI: 0.98–1.15.

Conclusions

All three approaches demonstrated a positive association between morning plasma cortisol and incident CVD. Together, these findings suggest that elevated morning cortisol is a causal risk factor for CVD. The current data suggest strategies targeted at lowering cortisol action should be evaluated for their effects on CVD.