Role of glucagon in protein catabolism

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Purpose of review

Glucagon is known as a key hormone in the control of glucose and amino acid metabolism. Critical illness is hallmarked by a profound alteration in glucose and amino acid metabolism, accompanied by muscle wasting and hypoaminoacidemia. Here we review novel insights in glucagon (patho)physiology and discuss the recently discovered role of glucagon in controlling amino acid metabolism during critical illness.

Recent findings

The role of glucagon in glucose metabolism is much more complex than originally anticipated, and glucagon has shown to be a key player in amino acid metabolism. During critical illness, the contribution of glucagon in bringing about hyperglycemia appeared to be quite limited, whereas increased glucagon availability seems to contribute importantly to the typical hypoaminoacidemia via stimulating hepatic amino acid breakdown, without affecting muscle wasting. Providing amino acids further increases hepatic amino acid breakdown, mediated by a further increase in glucagon.


Glucagon plays a crucial role in amino acid metabolism during critical illness, with an apparent feedback loop between glucagon and circulating amino acids. Indeed, elevated glucagon may, to a large extent, be responsible for the hypoaminoacidemia in the critically ill and infusing amino acids increases glucagon-driven amino acid breakdown in the liver. These novel insights further question the rationale for amino acid administration during critical illness.

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