Recent animal and human studies have suggested that leptin secretion is closely linked to the functions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the immune system, both of which are crucial in influencing the course and outcome of critical illness. Therefore, we measured basal plasma leptin levels and examined the circadian secretion of leptin, in parallel with the hormones of the HPA axis and a key cytokine, interleukin-6, in critically ill patients with acute sepsis. Sixteen critically ill patients from the University of Leipzig Intensive Care Unit were recruited for this study. All of these patients fulfilled the standard diagnostic criteria for sepsis. Plasma leptin levels were measured in all patients and controls at 09:00. In addition, in a subgroup of eight critically ill patients and all of the nine controls plasma leptin, cortisol, ACTH and interleukin-6 concentrations were measured every 4 hours for 24 hours. Mean plasma leptin levels were three-fold higher (18.9 +/- 4.5 ng/ml) in critically ill patients than controls (3.8 +/- 1.0 ng/ml, p < 0.05). Similarly, ACTH levels were lower (7.8 +/- 3.4 pmol/l) in patients than in controls (17.1 +/- 1.5 pmol/l, p < .001), while plasma cortisol levels were increased (947.6 +/- 144 nmol/l) in patients compared to controls (361.1 +/- 29, p < 0.001). Morning plasma interleukin-6 levels were markedly elevated in all patients with sepsis (1238.0 +/- 543.1 pg/ml) versus controls (6.4 +/- 1.7, p < 0.001). The controls exhibited a nyctohemeral fluctuation in plasma leptin levels with peak levels at 23:00; in contrast, septic patients, had no nocturnal rise of leptin. In healthy controls, plasma leptin and cortisol had reciprocal circadian rhythms with high nocturnal leptin levels and low nocturnal cortisol concentrations; in critically ill patients, this relation was abolished. Mean leptin levels were three-fold higher in patients who survived the septic episode (25.5 +/- 6.2, n = 10) than in non-survivors (8.0 +/- 3.7, n = 6, p < 0.01). We conclude that in addition to its function as an anti-obesity factor, leptin may play a role in a severe stress state such as acute sepsis.