Glucose intolerance and diabetes mellitus are both prevalent in cirrhosis, yet the pathogenesis of impaired glucose metabolism remains unknown. Therefore insulin secretion (hyperglycemic clamp, +125 mg/dl), insulin sensitivity (euglycemic hyperinsulinemic insulin clamp, +10 microU/ml and +50 microU/ml), whole-body glucose oxidation (indirect calorimetry) and glucose turnover ([6,6-2H2]glucose isotope dilution) were evaluated in a homogenous group of cirrhotic patients with glucose intolerance (n = 7) or frank diabetes mellitus (n = 6). The results were compared with those obtained in control subjects (n = 8). In glucose-intolerant patients, whole-body glucose uptake (mainly reflecting glucose utilization by muscle) was significantly impaired in patients during both insulin infusions as a result of decreased stimulation of the two major intracellular pathways of glucose disposal--nonoxidative glucose disposal (i.e., glycogen synthesis) and glucose oxidation. Hepatic glucose production was normal in the basal state and was normally suppressed during stepwise insulin infusion (by 65% and 85%, respectively, p = NS vs. controls). Hyperglycemia-induced increases of plasma C-peptide concentrations were comparable to those in controls (p = NS). In diabetic patients, insulin-mediated glucose uptake was significantly reduced, mainly because of impaired non-oxidative glucose disposal. Glucose oxidation appeared to be reduced, too. Hepatic glucose production was significantly increased in the basal state (3.03 +/- 0.24 vs. 2.34 +/- 0.10 mg/kg min, p < 0.02) and during insulin infusion (+50 microU/ml: 0.67 +/- 0.17 vs. 0.13 +/- 0.08 mg/kg min, p < 0.05) compared with that in controls. Both the first and second phases of beta-cell secretion were significantly reduced in response to steady-state hyperglycemia (both p < 0.01 vs. control values). In conclusion, glucose intolerance in cirrhosis results from two abnormalities that occur simultaneously: (a) insulin resistance of muscle and (b) an inadequate response (even when comparable to that of controls) of the beta-cells to appropriately secrete insulin to overcome the defect in insulin action. Diabetes mellitus in insulin-resistant cirrhotic patients develops as the result of progressive impairment in insulin secretion together with the development of hepatic insulin resistance leading to fasting hyperglycemia and a diabetic glucose tolerance profile.