We have previously described a temporal relationship between plasma cortisol pulses and slow-wave sleep and, more recently, an inverse significant cross-correlation between cortisol secretory rates and delta wave activity of the sleep electroencephalogram (EEG). The aim of this study was to observe ACTH, cortisol, and sleep delta wave activity variations throughout 24 h to get a better insight into their initiating mechanisms. Two groups of 10 subjects participated in a 24-h study, one group with a night sleep (2300-0700) and the other with a day sleep (0700-1500). Cortisol secretory rates were calculated by a deconvolution procedure from plasma levels measured at 10-min intervals. Delta wave activity was computed during sleep by spectral analysis of the sleep EEG. When delta waves and cortisol were present at the same time at the end of the night sleep as well as during the daytime sleep, they were negatively correlated, cortisol changes preceding variations in delta wave activity by approximately 10 min. Increases in delta wave activity occurred in the absence of cortisol pulses, as observed at the beginning of the night. Cortisol pulses occurred without any concomitant variations of sleep delta wave activity, as observed during wakefulness and intrasleep awakenings. In no case did delta wave activity increase together with an increase in cortisol secretory rates. In conclusion, cortisol secretion and delta wave activity have independent generators. They can oscillate independently from each other, but when they are present at the same time, they are oscillating in phase opposition.