The hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system is a most important mediator of the organism's response to stress. Secretory activity of this endocrine system displays a specific regulation during normal nocturnal sleep in humans. Pituitary release of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) as well as adrenocortical release of cortisol decreases to a minimum during early sleep which is simultaneously characterized by maximum release of growth hormone (GH) and a predominance of slow wave sleep (SWS). In contrast, release of ACTH and cortisol reaches a maximum during late sleep which is simultaneously characterized by minimum plasma concentrations of GH and a predominance of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The nadir activity of the pituitary-adrenal system during early sleep reflects an active inhibition of this 'stress' system. One of the factors mediating this inhibition presumably is the sleep associated hypothalamic secretion of a release inhibiting factor of ACTH. In addition, limbic-hippocampal neuronal networks contribute to the inhibitory control over HPA activity during early sleep. Those structures appear to coordinate HPA inhibition and cortical activity (with prevalent SWS) during early sleep, thereby facilitating the formation of memories in sleep. As indicated by studies testing the effects of elevated plasma glucocorticoid levels, the inhibition of HPA activity during early sleep is an essential prerequisite for the memory function of sleep. Possibly, immunological memory formation likewise benefits from this inhibition. The suppression of pituitary-adrenal secretory activity during early sleep can be significantly weakened after profound acute stress as well as in states of chronic stress (including normal aging) which thereby disturb regular memory formation in sleep.