The secretion of cortisol is mainly controlled by three inter-communicating regions of the body, the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland . This is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. When cortisol levels in the blood are low, a group of cells in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone , which causes the pituitary gland to secrete another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone , into the bloodstream. High levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone are detected in the adrenal glands and stimulate the secretion of cortisol, causing blood levels of cortisol to rise. As the cortisol levels rise, they start to block the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus and adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary. As a result the adrenocorticotropic hormone levels start to drop, which then leads to a drop in cortisol levels. This is called a negative feedback loop.
The mineralocorticoid pathway starts with 21-hydroxylation of progesterone to form deoxycorticosterone (DOC). The enzyme in this reaction, 21-hydroxylase, is encoded by the CYP21 gene. 11 , 12 Deoxycorticosterone is then converted to corticosterone through the action of 11β-hydroxylase. There are two distinct 11β-hydroxylase isoenzymes, both of which are encoded by two genes, CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 . 13 Corticosterone is hydroxylated at carbon 18 to form 18-hydroxycorticosterone, which is transformed to aldosterone by removal of two hydrogens (oxidation) at carbon 18. These two reactions are catalyzed by 18-hydroxylase and 18-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, respectively, which are encoded by the same gene, CYP11B2 . Transcription of CYP11B1 is regulated primarily by ACTH, whereas angiotensin II regulates CYP11B2 transcription. 14 , 15 Similarly, the glucocorticoid pathway begins with 17α-hydroxyprogesterone, which is converted to deoxycortisol and subsequently to cortisol by 21-hydroxylase and 11β-hydroxylase, respectively, in the same manner as the conversion of progesterone to corticosterone. A deficiency of 21-hydroxylase, 11β-hydroxylase, or 3β-HSD in the adrenals may result in congenital adrenal hyperplasia and female pseudohermaphroditism, manifested as a masculinized female fetus.
Cells of the zona fasciculata and zona reticularis lack aldosterone synthase (CYP11B2) that converts corticosterone to aldosterone, and thus these tissues produce only the weak mineralocorticoid corticosterone. However, both these zones do contain the CYP17A1 missing in zona glomerulosa and thus produce the major glucocorticoid, cortisol. Zona fasciculata and zona reticularis cells also contain CYP17A1, whose 17,20-lyase activity is responsible for producing the androgens, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and androstenedione. Thus, fasciculata and reticularis cells can make corticosteroids and the adrenal androgens, but not aldosterone.