The metabolic interactions of cold exposure, cold acclimation, and starvation on glucose tolerance and plasma insulin levels were studied in precannulated, unrestrained, and unanesthetized rats. Cold exposure (48 h at 5 degrees C) significantly reduced the insulin response to intravenous glucose injection (P less than 0.01) while improving glucose tolerance (P less than 0.01). Starvation (48 h at 25 degrees C) also reduced the insulin response (P less than 0.01) but did not significantly alter glucose tolerance. "Accelerated starvation" induced by starving rats for 48 h at 5 degrees C dramatically reduced both basal and glucose-stimulated insulin levels while even improving glucose tolerance, resulting in a 15-fold reduction in the insulinogenic index. Cold acclimation (3 wk at 5 degrees C) induced essentially the same alterations as cold exposure. Approximately reversed changes were observed when cold-acclimated rats were returned to a warm environment for 15-18 h. Results from these studies indicate that 1) cold exposure and starvation, but not cold acclimation, act synergistically in decreasing the sensitivity and/or the capacity of pancreatic islets for secreting insulin in response to glucose stimulation; 2) glucose tolerance and possibly insulin sensitivity of peripheral tissues are enhanced by cold exposure and starvation, although glucose tolerance is improved by cold exposure only, not by starvation; 3) an improved glucose tolerance with barely detectable plasma insulin levels was obtained in cold-starved rats under normal physiological conditions.