Sleep apnea syndrome has been shown to be associated with decreased levels of circulating nitric oxide (NO) after waking up from sleep. In this study we investigated overnight plasma concentrations of NO in sleep apnea patients before and after nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP) treatment and the effects of nCPAP on morning levels of L-arginine. In experiment 1, NO concentrations measured hourly during sleep were found to be significantly lower in a group of eight sleep apnea patients in comparison with six age-similar snorers and six normal young adults. In experiment 2, overnight NO concentrations were compared in 5 sleep apnea patients before and 9.3 +/- 3.9 mo after treatment with nCPAP. A significant increase in NO concentrations was found in four out of five patients, and a significant increase in L-arginine was found in all five patients after treatment. In experiment 3, removal of nCPAP for a single night in seven sleep apnea patients caused a significant decrease in morning levels of NO and L-arginine. These results demonstrate that sleep apnea is associated with a chronic state of diminished circulating NO concentrations that can be ameliorated by nCPAP treatment.