Plasma cortisol, ACTH and beta endorphin were measured before and after dexamethasone in 8 severely depressed patients and 8 age- and sex-matched controls to examine the relationship of ACTH and endogenous opioids to cortisol in depression. Despite having significantly higher plasma levels of cortisol than the controls, the depressed patients did not have correspondingly elevated plasma levels of ACTH. Beta-endorphin levels were also similar in the two groups. All three hormones suppressed to some degree after dexamethasone, but cortisol suppressed less in patients than controls. Our findings suggest that in severe depressive illness abnormalities exist in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis peripherally as well as centrally.