Two isoforms of 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11beta-HSD) interconvert the active glucocorticoid, cortisol, and inactive cortisone. 11beta-HSD1 acts predominantly as an oxo-reductase in vivo using NADP(H) as a cofactor to generate cortisol. In contrast, 11beta-HSD2 is a NAD-dependent dehydrogenase inactivating cortisol to cortisone, thereby protecting the mineralocorticoid receptor from occupation by cortisol. In peripheral tIssues, both enzymes serve to control the availability of cortisol to bind to corticosteroid receptors. 11beta-HSD2 protects the mineralocorticoid receptor from cortisol excess; mutations in the HSD11B2 gene explain an inherited form of hypertension, the syndrome of 'apparent mineralocorticoid excess', in which 'Cushing's disease of the kidney' results in cortisol-mediated mineralocorticoid excess. Inhibition of 11beta-HSD2 explains the mineralocorticoid excess state seen following liquorice ingestion and more subtle defects in enzyme expression might be involved in the pathogenesis of 'essential' hypertension. 11beta-HSD1 by generating cortisol in an autocrine fashion facilitates glucocorticoid receptor-mediated action in key peripheral tIssues including liver, adipose tissue, bone and the eye. 'Cushing's disease of the omentum' has been proposed as an underlying mechanism in the pathogenesis of central obesity and raises the exciting possibility of selective 11beta-HSD1 inhibition as a novel therapy for patients with the metabolic syndrome. 'Pre-receptor' metabolism of cortisol via 11beta-HSD isozymes is an important facet of corticosteroid hormone action. Aberrant expression of these isozymes is involved in the pathogenesis of diverse human diseases including hypertension, insulin resistance and obesity. Modulation of enzyme activity may offer a future therapeutic approach to treating these diseases whilst circumventing the endocrine consequences of glucocorticoid excess or deficiency.