The association between hypertension and insulin resistance might be explained by increased activity of the principal glucocorticoid, cortisol. Recent data show that the intensity of dermal vasoconstriction after topical application of glucocorticoids is increased in patients with essential hypertension. In this report, we examine whether increased glucocorticoid sensitivity or secretion is associated with insulin resistance and is a cause or consequence of hypertension. We studied 32 men (aged 47 to 56 years) from a cross-sectional study and 105 men (aged 23 to 33 years) in whom predisposition to high blood pressure has been defined by their own blood pressure and the blood pressures of their parents. In both populations, increased dermal glucocorticoid sensitivity was associated with relative hypertension, insulin resistance, and hyperglycemia. In young men with higher blood pressure whose parents also had high blood pressure, enhanced glucocorticoid sensitivity was accompanied by enhanced secretion of cortisol, enhanced ligand-binding affinities for dexamethasone in leukocytes, and impaired conversion of cortisol to inactive metabolites (cortisone and 5 beta-dihydrocortisol). Increased tissue sensitivity to cortisol, amplified by enhanced secretion of cortisol, is a feature of the familial predisposition to high blood pressure rather than a secondary effect of high blood pressure. It may be mediated by an abnormal glucocorticoid receptor, and it may contribute to the association between hypertension and insulin resistance.