We determined the dose-dependent effects of central mu-opioid receptor stimulation on rates of tissue protein synthesis. Chronically catheterized conscious rats received an intracerebroventricular injection of [D-Ala2, N-Me-Phe4,Gly5-ol]enkephalin (DAGO, 0.5, 2, or 8 nmol/rat) or water (5 microliters) 45 min before determination of protein synthesis by the flooding dose technique. DAGO produced a significant decrease in tissue protein synthesis in liver (57%), spleen (54%), gut mucosa (36%), gut serosa (23%), kidney (48%), gastrocnemius (33%), and plantaris muscle (27%), but it did not alter rates of protein synthesis in the brain, heart, and soleus muscle. DAGO produced an acute dose-dependent respiratory depression 30 min after intracerebroventricular injection; this depression resulted in acidosis, hypoxia, and hypercapnia (pH 7.19 +/- 0.04, arterial partial O2, pressure 44.2 +/- 3.4 Torr, arterial O2 saturation 65.3 +/- 5.5%, and PCO2 66.3 +/- 4.4 Torr). Intracerebroventricular DAGO increased circulating levels of catecholamines, corticosterone, and growth hormone but did not alter those of insulin and insulin-like growth factor I. Significant positive correlations between protein synthesis and pH were observed in the tissues studied (i.e., liver protein synthesis vs. pH, P < 0.0001, r = 0.902; gastrocnemius protein synthesis vs. pH, P < 0.0001, r = 0.830). Our results indicate that mu-receptor stimulation inhibits tissue protein synthesis, and this effect appears to be secondary to respiratory depression and the resulting acidosis and/or hypoxia. Furthermore, our findings suggest differential sensitivity in tissue response to alterations in pH, hypoxia, and stress hormone elevation.