Female gender appears to protect against adverse outcome from prolonged critical illness, a condition characterized by blunted and disorderly GH secretion and impaired anabolism. As a sexual dimorphism in the GH secretory pattern of healthy humans and rodents determines gender differences in metabolism, we here compared GH secretion and responsiveness to GH secretagogues in male and female protracted critically ill patients. GH secretion was quantified by deconvolution analysis and approximate entropy estimates of 9-h nocturnal time series in 9 male and 9 female patients matched for age (mean +/- SD, 67+/-11 and 67+/-15 yr), body mass index, severity and duration of illness, feeding, and medication. Serum concentrations of PRL, TSH, cortisol, and sex steroids were measured concomitantly. Serum levels of GH-binding protein, insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs), and PRL were compared with those of 50 male and 50 female community-living control subjects matched for age and body mass index. In a second study, GH responses to GHRH (1 microg/kg), GH-releasing peptide-2 (GHRP-2; 1 microg/ kg) and GHRH plus GHRP-2 (1 and 1 microg/kg) were examined in comparable, carefully matched male (n = 15) and female (n = 15) patients. Despite identical mean serum GH concentrations, total GH output, GH half-life, and number of GH pulses, critically ill men paradoxically presented with less pulsatile (mean +/- SD pulsatile GH fraction, 39+/-14% vs. 67+/-20%; P = 0.002) and more disorderly (approximate entropy, 0.946+/-0.113 vs. 0.805+/-0.147; P = 0.02) GH secretion than women. Serum IGF-I, IGFBP-3, and acid-labile subunit (ALS) levels were low in patients compared with controls, with male patients revealing lower IGF-I (P = 0.01) and ALS (P = 0.005) concentrations than female patients. Correspondingly, circulating IGF-I and ALS levels correlated positively with pulsatile (but not with nonpulsatile) GH secretion. Circulating levels of GH-binding protein and IGFBP-1, -2, and -6 were higher in patients than controls, without a detectable gender difference. In female patients, PRL levels were 3-fold higher, and TSH and cortisol tended to be higher than levels in males. In both genders, estrogen levels were more than 3-fold higher than normal, and testosterone (2.25+/-1.94 vs. 0.97+/-0.39 nmol/L; P = 0.03) and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate concentrations were low. In male patients, low testosterone levels were related to reduced GH pulse amplitude (r = 0.91; P = 0.0008). GH responses to GHRH were relatively low and equal in critically ill men and women (7.3+/-9.4 vs. 7.8+/-4.1 microg/L; P = 0.99). GH responses to GHRP-2 in women (93+/-38 microg/L) were supranormal and higher (P<0.0001) than those in men (28+/-16 microg/L). Combining GHRH with GHRP-2 nullified this gender difference (77+/-58 in men vs. 120+/-69 microg/L in women; P = 0.4). In conclusion, a paradoxical gender dissociation within the GH/ IGF-I axis is evident in protracted critical illness, with men showing greater loss of pulsatility and regularity within the GH secretory pattern than women (despite indistinguishable total GH output) and concomitantly lower IGF-I and ALS levels. Less endogenous GHRH action in severely ill men compared with women, possibly due to profound hypoandrogenism, accompanying loss of the putative endogenous GHRP-like ligand action with prolonged stress in both genders may explain these novel findings.