Although irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be considered a biopsychological disorder in which an association between life stress and physiological changes leading to bowel irregularity is present, there is a lack of data concerning possible modifications of the adrenal function during the disease. The aim of the present study was to measure biological and psychological variables related to the activity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in IBS patients compared to healthy subjects. Cortisol was measured in the saliva (obtained by a stress-free, non invasive collection procedure) of 55 IBS outpatients and 28 matched controls. Moreover, each subject completed the following self-administered questionnaires: the Rome Burnout Inventory (RBI) in its physical (RBI-PE) and emotional-mental exhaustion (RBI-EME) components, Beck Depression Inventory, State and Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), Perceived Social Support Scale (PSSS) and a Scale for the Assessment of Perceived Actual Work-Non Work Stress. Compared with controls, IBS subjects showed significantly higher levels of cortisol in the morning and lower in the evening, while they maintained the physiological circadian fluctuation (i.e. cortisol morning level higher than in the evening). Moreover, IBS patients presented a significant difference from controls in RBI-PE scores, which confirms the presence of fatigue, a symptom frequently reported by the patients. Compared with controls, no differences were found in IBS patients with respect to other psychological parameters. These findings suggest a dysregulation of the adrenal activity in IBS patients. The results may be relevant considering that changes in cortisol levels have been shown to be sensitive indicators of psychosocial stress and coping patterns in both laboratory and life situations.