We investigated the occurrence of alcoholic autonomic dysfunction in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis in order to define its prevalence and relationship to renal sodium retention. Forty-seven alcoholics and 16 age-matched normal subjects were evaluated. Thirty-seven patients had liver disease (13 with and 24 without ascites), and 10 patients had normal hepatic function. Autonomic nervous system function was ascertained by skin sudomotor responses and the response of blood pressure and plasma norepinephrine concentration to upright tilt (sympathetic nervous system function), and by heart rate responses to deep breathing, Valsalva maneuver, and upright tilt (parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system function). Heart rate responses to deep breathing and Valsalva maneuver were diminished, and skin sudomotor responses were significantly worse, in alcoholics than in control subjects. Alcoholic patients also had significantly lower supine mean arterial pressure (93 +/- 10 vs. 116 +/- 8 mm Hg, p less than or equal to 0.0001), and significantly greater increases in arterial pressure during passive upright tilt, than control subjects (mean increase 6.5 +/- 6.6 vs. 0.1 +/- 1.6 mm Hg, p = 0.0003). All of these findings were present to similar degrees in patients with and without liver disease and in cirrhotic patients with and without ascites. Supine heart rates, however, differed among the groups evaluated. Heart rate was significantly greater in patients with cirrhosis than in alcoholic patients without liver disease (83 +/- 11 vs. 71 +/- 13 bpm, p = 0.006), and in patients with ascites than in patients without ascites (88 +/- 12 vs. 80 +/- 10 bpm, p = 0.04). Plasma norepinephrine concentration was elevated in most patients with cirrhosis and was significantly higher in patients with ascites than in patients without ascites (789 +/- 238 vs. 388 +/- 185 pg/ml, p less than 0.0001; nl range: 65-320 pg/ml). Autonomic nervous system function is similarly impaired in alcoholics with and without liver disease. Patients with cirrhosis also have increased heart rate and elevated plasma norepinephrine concentration, abnormalities that are most pronounced in patients with sodium retention. Their is uncertainty as to the stimulus for norepinephrine release, and its source, in these patients. However, the similarity of supine blood pressure in patients with and without ascites and the occurrence of orthostatic hypertension rather than orthostatic hypotension following upright tilt suggest that arterial underfilling is not responsible.