We studied 24-h profiles of circulating leptin levels using a sensitive and specific RIA in lean controls and obese subjects with or without non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) during normal routine activity. Serum leptin levels were significantly higher in obese (41.7 +/- 9.0 ng/ml; n = 11) and obese NIDDM (30.8 +/- 6.7; n = 9) subjects compared with those in lean controls (12.0 +/- 4.4, n = 6). In all the three groups, serum leptin levels were highest between midnight and early morning hours and lowest around noon to midafternoon. The nocturnal rise in leptin levels was significant when data were analyzed by ANOVA (lean: F = 3.17, P < 0.0001, n = 4; obese: F = 2.02, P < 0.005, n = 11; and obese NIDDM: F = 4.9, P < 0.0001, n = 5). The average circadian amplitude between acrophase and nadir was 75.6% in lean, 51.7%, in obese and 60.7% in obese NIDDM groups, respectively. No significant correlations (P > 0.05) were observed between circulating levels of leptin and either insulin or glucose levels in any of the 20 subjects studied for 24-h profiles. The nocturnal rise in leptin observed in the present study resembles those reported for prolactin, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and free fatty acids. We speculate that the nocturnal rise in leptin could have an effect in suppressing appetite during the night while sleeping.