Previous studies on the effects of ethanol on circulating pituitary hormones have been carried out mostly during daytime when the secretion of these hormones is generally at a nadir. Therefore, we studied the effects of ethanol on the nocturnal secretion of GH, PRL, TSH, and thyroid hormones (protocol I, nine healthy subjects, five women) and on the TSH and PRL responses to synthetic TRH (protocol II, healthy subjects, four women). Ethanol was given in doses of 0, 0.5 or 1.0 g/kg of BW(protocol I) and 0 or 1.0 g/kg (protocol II) and ingested po at 1900-1945 h. In protocol I, plasma GH rose from 0.6 +/- 0.2 microgram/L (mean +/- SE) at 2200 h to 25.0 +/- 4.3 micrograms/L at 0100 h in control subjects and was almost completely inhibited at 4.5 +/- 1.7 micrograms/L at 0100 h in subjects receiving 1.0 g/kg ethanol (P < 0.01). In subjects receiving 0.5 g/kg ethanol, the inhibition was also significant (P < 0.01), plasma GH being 8.2 +/- 2.5 micrograms/L at 0100 h. Plasma GHRH was measured after solid phase separation in RIA, but it did not show any ethanol-related changes. Plasma PRL exhibited a clear diurnal rhythm in control subjects and rose from 77 +/- 16 at 1800 h to 248 +/- 62 micrograms/L at 0700 h (P < 0.01). The plasma PRL profile was not affected by ethanol. Plasma TSH was 1.4 +/- 0.2 mU/L at 1800-2200 h and rose to 2.3-2.4 mU/L for 0100-0700 h (P < 0.001) in the control subjects. Ethanol 1.0 g/kg suppressed plasma TSH to 1.4 +/- 0.2 mU/L (P < 0.05 at 0100 h and P < 0.01 at 0200 h). According to the area under the curve analyses, the suppression in the nocturnal TSH was 32% in the 0.5 g/kg group and 45% in the 1.0 g/kg group (P < 0.05 for both cases). Circulating free or total T3 and T4 did not show any statistically significant changes that could explain the ethanol-induced inhibition in the nocturnal TSH peak. In protocol II, synthetic TRH (1 microgram/kg BW) was given intravenously, and blood samples were collected before, at 20 and 60 min. TRH significantly stimulated plasma TSH and PRL, but ethanol (1.0 g/kg BW) had no effect on these responses. In conclusion, small amounts of ethanol have unexpectedly great effects on nocturnal surges of TSH, and especially on those of GH, that are apparently mediated by suprapituitary mechanisms. On the other hand, ethanol did not affect the nocturnal PRL surge. These inhibitory effects of ethanol may have unfavorable effects on growth and metabolism in adolescent drinkers.