Sleep curtailment constitutes an increasingly common condition in industrialized societies and is thought to affect mood and performance rather than physiological functions. There is no evidence for prolonged or delayed effects of sleep loss on the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. We evaluated the effects of acute partial or total sleep deprivation on the nighttime and daytime profile of cortisol levels. Plasma cortisol profiles were determined during a 32-hour period (from 1800 hours on day 1 until 0200 hours on day 3) in normal young men submitted to three different protocols: normal sleep schedule (2300-0700 hours), partial sleep deprivation (0400-0800 hours), and total sleep deprivation. Alterations in cortisol levels could only be demonstrated in the evening following the night of sleep deprivation. After normal sleep, plasma cortisol levels over the 1800-2300-hour period were similar on days 1 and 2. After partial and total sleep deprivation, plasma cortisol levels over the 1800-2300-hour period were higher on day 2 than on day 1 (37 and 45% increases, p = 0.03 and 0.003, respectively), and the onset of the quiescent period of cortisol secretion was delayed by at least 1 hour. We conclude that even partial acute sleep loss delays the recovery of the HPA from early morning circadian stimulation and is thus likely to involve an alteration in negative glucocorticoid feedback regulation. Sleep loss could thus affect the resiliency of the stress response and may accelerate the development of metabolic and cognitive consequences of glucocorticoid excess.