Total body water (TBW) is reduced in adult GH deficiency (GHD) largely due to a reduction of extracellular water. It is unknown whether total blood volume (TBV) contributes to the reduced extracellular water in GHD. GH and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) have been demonstrated to stimulate erythropoiesis in vitro, in animal models, and in growing children. Whether GH has a regulatory effect on red cell mass (RCM) in adults is not known. We analyzed body composition by bioelectrical impedance and used standard radionuclide dilution methods to measure RCM and plasma volume (PV) along with measuring full blood count, ferritin, vitamin B12, red cell folate, IGF-I, IGF-binding protein-3, and erythropoietin in 13 adult patients with GHD as part of a 3-month, double blind, placebo-controlled trial of GH (0.036 U/kg.day). TBW and lean body mass significantly increased by 2.5 +/- 0.53 kg (mean +/- SEM; P < 0.004) and 3.4 +/- 0.73 kg (P < 0.004), respectively, and fat mass significantly decreased by 2.4 +/- 0.32 kg (P < 0.001) in the GH-treated group. The baseline RCM of all patients with GHD was lower than the predicted normal values (1635 +/- 108 vs. 1850 +/- 104 mL; P < 0.002). GH significantly increased RCM, PV, and TBV by 183 +/- 43 (P < 0.006), 350 +/- 117 (P < 0.03), and 515 +/- 109 (P < 0.004) mL, respectively. The red cell count increased by 0.36 +/- 0.116 x 10(12)/L (P < 0.03) with a decrease in ferritin levels by 39.1 +/- 4.84 micrograms/L (P < 0.001) after GH treatment. Serum IGF-I and IGF-binding protein-3 concentrations increased by 3.0 +/- 0.43 (P < 0.001) and 1.3 +/- 0.15 (P < 0.001) SD, respectively, but the erythropoietin concentration was unchanged after GH treatment. No significant changes in body composition or blood volume were recorded in the placebo group. Significant positive correlations could be established between changes in TBW and TBV, lean body mass and TBV (r = 0.78; P < 0.04 and r = 0.77; P < 0.04, respectively), and a significant negative correlation existed between changes in fat mass and changes in TBV in the GH-treated group (r = -0.95; P < 0.02). We conclude that 1) erythropoiesis is impaired in GHD; 2) GH stimulates erythropoiesis in adult GHD; and 3) GH increases PV and TBV, which may contribute to the increased exercise performance seen in these patients.