Hypertensive patients have reduced lymphocyte beta-adrenergic responsiveness which is corrected by a low sodium (Na) diet. To determine if this represents a more generalized abnormality in beta adrenoceptor response, we studied beta adrenergic-mediated vasodilation in hand veins of borderline hypertensive subjects and controls. Subjects received a 5-d diet containing high Na/low potassium (K), high Na/high K, or low Na/high K. Venous distension, as evaluated by a linear variable differential transformer, was measured in relation to infusion of phenylephrine followed by isoproterenol and nitroglycerin. On both the high Na/high K and high Na/low K diets, hypertensive subjects had significantly decreased isoproterenol-mediated vasodilation (47% decrease, P less than 0.01 and 36% decrease, P less than 0.01, respectively). On the low Na/high K diet, isoproterenol-mediated vasodilation in hypertensive subjects increased 41% (P less than 0.01) to a level not different from controls. Nitroglycerin-mediated vasodilation was not different in normotensive and hypertensive subjects, nor was it altered with Na intake. Phenylephrine-mediated vasoconstriction did not differ between normotensive and hypertensive groups. Venous beta-adrenergic response correlated with lymphocyte beta adrenoceptor density in normotensive (r = 0.53, P less than 0.005) but not hypertensive subjects. This study demonstrates that beta-adrenergic responsiveness is selectively reduced in peripheral veins of borderline hypertensive subjects, and this is corrected by a low Na diet. In view of our previous findings of reduced lymphocyte beta-adrenergic responsiveness in borderline hypertension, these studies suggest a generalized defect of beta adrenoceptor responsiveness in human hypertension. Further, dietary Na may play an important role in regulating this abnormality.