As obesity and diabetes reach epidemic proportions in the developed world, the role of insulin resistance and its consequences are gaining prominence. Understanding the role of insulin in wide-ranging physiological processes and the influences on its synthesis and secretion, alongside its actions from the molecular to the whole body level, has significant implications for much chronic disease seen in Westernised populations today. This review provides an overview of insulin, its history, structure, synthesis, secretion, actions and interactions followed by a discussion of insulin resistance and its associated clinical manifestations. Specific areas of focus include the actions of insulin and manifestations of insulin resistance in specific organs and tissues, physiological, environmental and pharmacological influences on insulin action and insulin resistance as well as clinical syndromes associated with insulin resistance. Clinical and functional measures of insulin resistance are also covered. Despite our incomplete understanding of the complex biological mechanisms of insulin action and insulin resistance, we need to consider the dramatic social changes of the past century with respect to physical activity, diet, work, socialisation and sleep patterns. Rapid globalization, urbanisation and industrialization have spawned epidemics of obesity, diabetes and their attendant co-morbidities, as physical inactivity and dietary imbalance unmask latent predisposing genetic traits.