Intestinal mucosal atrophy, as induced by total parenteral nutrition (TPN) and/or prolonged bowel rest, is hypothesized to enhance bowel endotoxin (LPS) translocation and may alter host responses to infection. To examine the effect of TPN-induced bowel atrophy on the response to LPS, 12 healthy volunteers were randomized to receive either enteral feedings (ENT, n = 6) or seven days of TPN without oral intake (TPN, n = 6). Enteral or TPN feedings were terminated 12 hours before the study period when a constant dextrose infusion (50 mg/kg/hour) was initiated and continued throughout the subsequent study period. After placement of arterial, hepatic vein, and femoral vein catheters, metabolic parameters were determined before and for six hours after an intravenous E. coli LPS challenge (20 U/kg). Subsequent peak levels of arterial glucagon (ENT, 189 +/- 39 pg/mL; TPN, 428 +/- 48; p less than 0.01), arterial epinephrine (ENT, 236 +/- 52 pg/mL; TPN, 379 +/- 49; p less than 0.05) and hepatic venous cachectin/tumor necrosis factor (cachectin/TNF) (ENT, 250 +/- 56 pg/mL; TPN, 479 +/- 136; p less than 0.05) were significantly higher in the TPN group than in the ENT group. The extremity efflux of lactate (ENT, -16 +/- 4 micrograms/min-100cc tissue; TPN, -52 +/- 13; t = 2 hours; p less than 0.05) and of amino acids (ENT, -334 +/- 77 nmol/min-100cc tissue; TPN, -884 +/- 58; t = 4 hours; p less than 0.05) were higher in the TPN subjects after the endotoxin challenge. Circulating C-reactive Protein (CRP) levels measured 24 hours postendotoxin were also significantly higher in the TPN subjects (ENT, 1.7 +/- 0.2 mg/dL; TPN, 3.2 +/- 0.3; p less than 0.01). Hence the counter-regulatory hormone and splanchnic cytokine responses to LPS were enhanced after TPN and bowel rest. This is associated with a magnified acute-phase response, peripheral amino acid mobilization, and peripheral lactate production. Thus antecedent TPN may influence the metabolic alterations seen in infection and sepsis via both an exaggerated counter-regulatory hormone response as well as an enhanced systemic and splanchnic production of cytokines.