Plasma growth hormone (GH), insulin, cortisol, and glucose were measured during sleep on 38 nights in eight young adults. Blood was drawn from an indwelling catheter at 30-min intervals; EEG and electrooculogram were recorded throughout the night. In seven subjects, a plasma GH peak (13-72 mmug/ml) lasting 1.5-3.5 hr appeared with the onset of deep sleep. Smaller GH peaks (6-14 mmug/ml) occasionally appeared during subsequent deep sleep phases. Peak GH secretion was delayed if the onset of sleep was delayed. Subjects who were awakened for 2-3 hr and allowed to return to sleep exhibited another peak of GH secretion (14-46 mmug/ml). Peak GH secretion was not correlated with changes in plasma glucose, insulin, and cortisol. The effects of 6-CNS-active drugs on sleep-related GH secretion were investigated. Imipramine (50 mg) completely abolished GH peaks in two of four subjects, whereas chlorpromazine (30 mg), phenobarbital (97 mg), diphenylhydantoin (90 mg), chlordiazepoxide (20 mg), and isocarboxazid (30 mg) did not inhibit GH peaks. Altered hypothalamic activity associated with initiation of sleep results in a major peak of growth hormone secretion unrelated to hypoglycemia or changes in cortisol and insulin secretion.