Reperfusion of an ischaemic tissue is associated with an intense inflammatory response and inflammation-mediated tissue injury. Physalins, a group of substances with secosteroidal chemical structure, are found in Physalis angulata stems and leaves. Here, we assessed the effects of physalins on the local, remote and systemic injuries following intestinal ischaemia and reperfusion (I/R) in mice and compared with the effects of dexamethasone. Following I/R injury, dexamethasone (10 mg kg(-1)) or physalin B or F markedly prevented neutrophil influx, the increase in vascular permeability in the intestine and the lungs. Maximal inhibition occurred at 20 mg kg(-1). Moreover, there was prevention of haemorrhage in the intestine of reperfused animals. Dexamethasone or physalins effectively suppressed the increase in tissue (intestine and lungs) and serum concentrations of TNF-alpha. Interestingly, treatment with the compounds was associated with enhancement of IL-10. The anti-inflammatory effects of dexamethasone or physalins were reversed by pretreatment with the corticoid receptor antagonist RU486 (25 mg kg(-1)). The drug compounds suppressed steady-state concentrations of corticosterone, but did not alter the reperfusion-associated increase in levels of corticosterone. The IL-10-enhancing effects of the drugs were not altered by RU486. In conclusion, the in vivo anti-inflammatory actions of physalins, natural steroidal compounds, appear to be mostly due to the activation of glucocorticoid receptors. Compounds derived from these natural secosteroids may represent novel therapeutic options for the treatment of inflammatory diseases.