Chronic sleep restriction is an increasing problem in many countries and may have many, as yet unknown, consequences for health and well being. Studies in both humans and rats suggest that sleep deprivation may activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, one of the main neuroendocrine stress systems. However, few attempts have been made to examine how sleep loss affects the HPA axis response to subsequent stressors. Furthermore, most studies applied short-lasting total sleep deprivation and not restriction of sleep over a longer period of time, as often occurs in human society. Using the rat as our model species, we investigated: (i) the HPA axis activity during and after sleep deprivation and (ii) the effect of sleep loss on the subsequent HPA response to a novel stressor. In one experiment, rats were subjected to 48 h of sleep deprivation by placing them in slowly rotating wheels. Control rats were placed in nonrotating wheels. In a second experiment, rats were subjected to an 8-day sleep restriction protocol allowing 4 h of sleep each day. To test the effects of sleep loss on subsequent stress reactivity, rats were subjected to a 30-min restraint stress. Blood samples were taken at several time points and analysed for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and corticosterone. The results show that ACTH and corticosterone concentrations were elevated during sleep deprivation but returned to baseline within 4 h of recovery. After 1 day of sleep restriction, the ACTH and corticosterone response to restraint stress did not differ between control and sleep deprived rats. However, after 48 h of total sleep deprivation and after 8 days of restricted sleep, the ACTH response to restraint was significantly reduced whereas the corticosterone response was unaffected. These results show that sleep loss not only is a mild activator of the HPA axis itself, but also affects the subsequent response to stress. Alterations in HPA axis regulation may gradually appear under conditions of long total sleep deprivation but also after repeated sleep curtailment.