Caffeine elevates cortisol secretion, and caffeine is often consumed in conjunction with exercise or mental stress. The interactions of caffeine and stress on cortisol secretion have not been explored adequately in women. We measured cortisol levels at eight times on days when healthy men and women consumed caffeine (250 mg x 3) and underwent either mental stress or dynamic exercise protocols, followed by a midday meal, in a double blind, placebo-controlled, crossover design. Men and women had similar cortisol levels at the predrug baselines, but they responded differently to mental stress and exercise. The cortisol response to mental stress was smaller in women than in men (p=.003). Caffeine acted in concert with mental stress to further increase cortisol levels (p=.011), the effect was similar in men and women. Exercise alone did not increase cortisol, but caffeine taken before exercise elevated cortisol in both men and women (ps<.05). After a postexercise meal, the women had a larger cortisol response than the men, and this effect was greater after caffeine (p<.01). Cortisol release in response to stress and caffeine therefore appears to be a function of the type of stressor and the sex of the subject. However, repeated caffeine doses increased cortisol levels across the test day without regard to the sex of the subject or type of stressor employed (p<.00001). Caffeine may elevate cortisol by stimulating the central nervous system in men but may interact with peripheral metabolic mechanisms in women.