To evaluate the role of anti-insulin hormone actions and interactions in the pathogenesis of stress-induced hyperglycemia, the counterregulatory hormones, glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol were infused alone as well as in double and triple combinations into normal conscious dogs in doses that were designed to simulate changes observed in severe stress. Infusion of glucagon, epinephrine, or cortisol alone produced only mild or insignificant elevations in plasma glucose concentration. In contrast, the rise in plasma glucose produced by combined infusion of any two counterregulatory hormones was 50-215% greater (P < 0.005-0.001) than the sum of the respective individual infusions. Furthermore, when all three hormones were infused simultaneously, the increment in plasma glucose concentration (144+/-2 mg/dl) was two- to fourfold greater than the sum of the responses to the individual hormone infusions or the sum of any combination of double plus single hormone infusion (P < 0.001). Infusion of glucagon or epinephrine alone resulted in a transient rise in glucose production (as measured by [3-(3)H]glucose). While glucagon infusion was accompanied by a rise in glucose clearance, with epinephrine there was a sustained, 20% fall in glucose clearance. When epinephrine was infused together with glucagon, the rise in glucose production was additive, albeit transient. However, the inhibitory effect of epinephrine on glucose clearance predominated, thereby accounting for the exaggerated glycemic response to combined infusion of glucagon and epinephrine. Although infusion of cortisol alone had no effect on glucose production, the addition of cortisol markedly accentuated hyperglycemia produced by glucagon and(or) epinephrine primarily by sustaining the increases in glucose production produced by these hormones. The combined hormonal infusions had no effect on beta-hydroxybutyrate concentration. It is concluded that (a) physiologic increments in glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol interact synergistically in the normal dog so as to rapidly produce marked fasting hyperglycemia; (b) in this interaction, epinephrine enhances glucagon-stimulated glucose output and interferes with glucose uptake while cortisol sustains elevations in glucose production produced by epinephrine and glucagon; and (c) these data indicate that changes in glucose metabolism in circumstances in which several counterregulatory hormones are elevated (e.g., "stress hyperglycemia") are a consequence of synergistic interactions among these hormones.