Plasma histamine, cortisol, epinephrine, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), and leukocyte beta-adrenergic receptors were measured in asthmatic patients with (n = 7) and without (n = 10) nocturnal asthma at 4 PM and 4 AM and compared with those of normal subjects (n = 10). A twofold higher plasma histamine concentration was observed at 4 AM compared with 4 PM in all groups, with no change in plasma cortisol, epinephrine, and cAMP concentrations. At 4 AM compared with 4 PM, only patients with nocturnal asthma had a significant 33% decrease (p less than 0.05) in mononuclear and polymorphonuclear leukocyte beta-adrenergic receptor density, with no difference in binding affinity in all three groups. Polymorphonuclear leukocytes from patients with nocturnal asthma had significantly impaired response to isoproterenol at 4 AM (17% +/- 7.3% SEM increase in cAMP; p less than 0.05) compared with those of patients without nocturnal asthma (69.4% +/- 13.7%) and normal (80.2% +/- 21.3%) subjects. A significant change in beta-adrenergic receptor density and function occurs at night in patients with nocturnal asthma.