Urinary cortisol output and serum cortisol concentrations were measured in the steady state, under "field" conditions, and during standardized inhibitory and stimulatory tests in premenopausal, obese women, and were analyzed in relation to adipose tissue distribution. Urinary cortisol output was increased under field conditions in women with an elevated waist to hip circumference ratio (WHR) and, in particular, in women with a large abdominal sagittal diameter, indicating visceral fat accumulation. However, dexamethasone inhibition of cortisol secretion was normal. Stimulation with corticotropin analogue and with physical (cold-pressor test) or mental (color-word or mathematic) stress tests also showed elevated responses of serum cortisol, but not of prolactin or growth hormone concentrations. It is suggested that women with visceral fat accumulation have elevated cortisol secretion due to an increased sensitivity along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and that this may be causing their abnormal fat depot distribution.