The activity of the pituitary–adrenal axis can profoundly impact on body composition. This is dramatically seen in Cushing's syndrome (CS) but changes in body composition are also implicated in depression and alcoholic pseudocushing's. The pathophysiological mechanisms underlying these changes remain poorly understood. Changes to body composition in CS include increased fat mass, decreased bone mass, thinning of the skin and reduced lean mass. Why these tissues are affected so dramatically is unclear. Additionally, the change in body composition between individuals varies considerably for reasons which are only now becoming evident. This paper reviews the phenotypic changes with altered pituitary–adrenal axis activity and discusses the mechanisms involved. The primary focus is on adipose, bone, muscle and skin since the most dramatic changes are seen in these tissues.