Insulin resistance has been proposed as a mediator of the association between risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the population. The clinical syndrome of glucocorticoid excess (Cushing's syndrome) is associated with glucose intolerance, obesity and hypertension. By opposing the actions of insulin, glucocorticoids could contribute to insulin resistance and its association with other cardiovascular risk factors. In this review, we describe briefly the known mechanisms of insulin resistance and highlight the potential mechanisms for the effect of glucocorticoids. We then discuss factors which modulate the influence of glucocorticoids on insulin sensitivity; this highlights a novel therapeutic strategy to manipulate glucocorticoid action which may prove to be a useful tool in treating subjects with insulin resistance. Finally, we describe evidence from human studies that glucocorticoids make an important contribution to the pathophysiology of insulin resistance in the population.