The effects of oral caffeine (3.3 mg/kg, equivalent to 2-3 cups of coffee) on plasma adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) and cortisol (CORT) were tested in 47 healthy young men at rest in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Following caffeine, ACTH was significantly elevated at all times from 30 min to 180 min, and CORT was elevated from 60 min to 120 min (Fs > or = 8.4, ps < 0.01). Peak increases relative to placebo were: ACTH, 33% (+5.2 pg/ml) and CORT, 30% (+2.7 micrograms/dl) at 60 min postcaffeine. The results suggest that caffeine can activate important components of the pituitary-adrenocortical response in humans during the resting state. Caffeine's known ability to increase CORT production appears at least partly due to an increase in ACTH release at the pituitary.