Cortisol is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol by a multienzyme cascade in the adrenal glands. It is the main glucocorticoid in humans and acts as a gene transcription factor influencing a multitude of cellular responses in virtually all tissues. Cortisol plays a critical role in glucose metabolism, maintenance of vascular tone, immune response regulation, and in the body's response to stress. Its production is under hypothalamic-pituitary feedback control.
Only a small percentage of circulating cortisol is biologically active (free), with the majority of cortisol inactive (protein bound). As plasma cortisol values increase, free cortisol (ie, unconjugated cortisol or hydrocortisone) increases and is filtered through the glomerulus. Urinary free cortisol (UFC) in the urine correlates well with the concentration of plasma free cortisol. UFC represents excretion of the circulating, biologically active, free cortisol that is responsible for the signs and symptoms of hypercortisolism.
UFC is a sensitive test for the various types of adrenocortical dysfunction, particularly hypercortisolism (Cushing syndrome). A measurement of 24-hour UFC excretion, by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), is the preferred screening test for Cushing syndrome. LC-MS/MS methodology eliminates analytical interferences including carbamazepine (Tegretol) and synthetic corticosteroids, which can affect immunoassay-based cortisol results.
Values in the normal range may occur in patients with mild Cushing syndrome or with periodic hormonogenesis. In these cases, continuing follow-up and repeat testing are necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
Suppressed cortisol values may also be observed in primary adrenal insufficiency and hypopituitarism. However, many normal individuals may also exhibit a very low 24-hour urinary cortisol excretion with considerable overlap with the values observed in pathological hypocorticalism. Therefore, without other tests, 24-hour urinary cortisol measurements cannot be relied upon for the diagnosis of hypocorticalism.
Most patients with Cushing syndrome have increased 24-hour urinary excretion of cortisol. Further studies, including suppression or stimulation tests, measurement of serum corticotrophin concentrations, and imaging are usually necessary to confirm the diagnosis and determine the etiology.
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