Cortisol production rates (FPRs) in physiologic and pathologic states in humans have been investigated over the past 30 years. However, there has been conflicting evidence concerning the validity of the currently accepted value of FPRs in humans (12 to 15 mg/m2/d) as determined by radiotracer methodology. The present study reviews previous methods proposed for the measurement of FPRs in humans and discusses the applications of the first method for the direct determination of 24-hour plasma FPRs during continuous administration of a stable isotope, using a thermospray high-pressure liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry technique. The technique is fast, sensitive, and, unlike gas chromatography-mass spectrometry methods, does not require derivatization, allowing on-line detection and quantification of plasma cortisol after a simple extraction procedure. The results of determination of plasma FPRs by stable tracer/mass spectrometry are directly in units of mass/time and, unlike radiotracer methods, are independent of any determination of volume of distribution or cortisol concentration. Our methodology offers distinct advantages over radiotracer techniques in simplicity and reliability since only single measurements of isotope ratios are required. The technique was validated in adrenalectomized patients. Circadian variations in daily FRPs were observed in normal volunteers, and, to date, results suggest a lower FRP in normal children and adults than previously believed.