Ghrelin, an endogenous ligand of the growth hormone (GH) secretagogue (GHS) receptor, stimulates GH release, appetite, and weight gain in humans and rodents. Synthetic GHSs modulate sleep electroencephalogram (EEG) and nocturnal hormone secretion. We studied the effect of 4 x 50 microg of ghrelin administered hourly as intravenous boluses between 2200 and 0100 on sleep EEG and the secretion of plasma GH, ACTH, cortisol, prolactin, and leptin in humans (n = 7). After ghrelin administration, slow-wave sleep was increased during the total night and accumulated delta-wave activity was enhanced during the second half of the night. Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep was reduced during the second third of the night, whereas all other sleep EEG variables remained unchanged. Furthermore, GH and prolactin plasma levels were enhanced throughout the night, and cortisol levels increased during the first part of the night (2200-0300). The response of GH to ghrelin was most distinct after the first injection and lowest after the fourth injection. In contrast, cortisol showed an inverse pattern of response. Leptin levels did not differ between groups. Our data show a distinct action of exogenous ghrelin on sleep EEG and nocturnal hormone secretion. We suggest that ghrelin is an endogenous sleep-promoting factor. This role appears to be complementary to the already described effects of the peptide in the regulation of energy balance. Furthermore, ghrelin appears to be a common stimulus of the somatotropic and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical systems. It appears that ghrelin is a sleep-promoting factor in humans.