A Role for Glucocorticoids in Stress-Impaired Reproduction: Beyond the Hypothalamus and Pituitary

In addition to the well-characterized role of the sex steroid receptors in regulating fertility and reproduction, reproductive events are also mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in response to an individual's environment. Glucocorticoid secretion in response to stress contributes to the well-characterized suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis through central actions in the hypothalamus and pituitary. However, both animal and in vitro studies indicate that other components of the reproductive system are also regulated by glucocorticoids. Furthermore, in the absence of stress, it appears that homeostatic glucocorticoid signaling plays a significant role in reproduction and fertility in all tissues comprising the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. Indeed, as central regulators of the immune response, glucocorticoids are uniquely poised to integrate an individual's infectious, inflammatory, stress, nutritional, and metabolic status through glucocorticoid receptor signaling in target tissues. Endocrine signaling between tissues regulating the immune and stress response and those determining reproductive status provides an evolutionary advantage, facilitating the trade-off between reproductive investment and offspring fitness. This review focuses on the actions of glucocorticoids in tissues important for fertility and reproduction, highlighting recent studies that show glucocorticoid signaling plays a significant role throughout the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis and characterizing these effects as permissive or inhibitory in terms of facilitating reproductive success.