To assess the effect of sleep on functional residual capacity (FRC) in normal subjects and asthmatic patients, 10 adult subjects (5 asthmatic patients with nocturnal worsening, 5 normal controls) were monitored overnight in a horizontal volume-displacement body plethysmograph. With the use of a single inspiratory occlusion technique, we determined that when supine and awake, asthmatic patients were hyperinflated relative to normal controls (FRC = 3.46 +/- 0.18 and 2.95 +/- 0.13 liters, respectively; P less than 0.05). During sleep FRC decreased in both groups, but the decrease was significantly greater in asthmatic patients such that during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep FRC was equivalent between the asthmatic and normal groups (FRC = 2.46 +/- 0.23 and 2.45 +/- 0.09 liters, respectively). Specific pulmonary conductance decreased progressively and significantly in the asthmatic patients during the night, falling from 0.047 +/- 0.007 to 0.018 +/- 0.002 cmH2O-1.s-1 (P less than 0.01). There was a significant linear relationship through the night between FRC and pulmonary conductance in only two of the five asthmatic patients (r = 0.55 and 0.65, respectively). We conclude that 1) FRC falls during sleep in both normal subjects and asthmatic patients, 2) the hyperinflation observed in awake asthmatic patients is diminished during non-REM sleep and eliminated during REM sleep, and 3) sleep-associated reductions in FRC may contribute to but do not account for all the nocturnal increase in airflow resistance observed in asthmatic patients with nocturnal worsening.