We tested the hypothesis that key endocrine responses to semistarvation would be attenuated by changing only the food intake in a multistressor environment that also included sustained workload, inadequate sleep, and thermal strain. Serum hormones were compared within and between two groups of healthy young male volunteers participating in the 8-wk US Army Ranger course, with four repeated cycles of restricted energy intakes and refeeding: group 1 (n = 49) and group 2 (n = 48); energy deficits averaged 1,200 and 1,000 kcal/day, respectively. After 8 wk, most of group 1 achieved a minimum body fat, serum 3,5,3'-triiodothyronine (T(3)) was below normal (78 +/- 20 ng/dl), testosterone (T) approached castrate levels (4.5 +/- 3.9 nmol/l), insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) declined by one-half (75 +/- 25 microg/l), and cholesterol rose from 158 +/- 31 to 217 +/- 39 mg/dl. Bioavailable T(3) and T were further reduced by increases in their specific binding proteins in response to declining insulin. Refeeding, even with continuation of the other stressors, produced prompt recovery of T(3), T, and IGF-I. Higher energy intakes in group 2 attenuated the subclinical hypothyroidism and hypercholesterolemia, whereas consistent luteinizing hormone suppression indicated centrally mediated threshold effects on gonadal hormone suppression. We conclude that low T, T(3), and IGF-I remained reliable markers of acute energy deficits in the presence of other stressors; elevated cholesterol and cortisol provided information about chronic status, corresponding to diminishing body fat stores.