Metabolic acidosis is associated with enhanced renal ammonia-genesis which is regulated, in part, by glucocorticoids. The interaction between glucocorticoids and chronic metabolic acidosis on nitrogen utilization and muscle protein metabolism is unknown. In rats pair-fed by gavage, we found that chronic acidosis stunted growth and caused a 43% increase in urinary nitrogen and an 87% increase in urinary corticosterone. Net protein degradation in incubated epitrochlearis muscles from chronically acidotic rats was stimulated at all concentrations of insulin from 0 to 10(4) microU/ml. This effect of acidosis persisted despite supplementation of the media with amino acids with or without insulin, indomethacin, and inhibitors of lysosomal thiol cathepsins. Acidosis did not change protein synthesis; hence, the increase in net protein degradation was caused by stimulation of proteolysis. Acidosis did not increase glutamine production in muscle. The protein catabolic effect of acidosis required glucocorticoids; protein degradation was stimulated in muscle of acidotic, adrenalectomized rats only if they were treated with dexamethasone. Moreover, when nonacidotic animals were given 3 micrograms/100 g of body weight dexamethasone twice a day, muscle protein degradation was increased if the muscles were simply incubated in acidified media. We conclude that chronic metabolic acidosis depresses nitrogen utilization and increases glucocorticoid production. The combination of increased glucocorticoids and acidosis stimulates muscle proteolysis but does not affect protein synthesis. These changes in muscle protein metabolism may play a role in the defense against acidosis by providing amino acid nitrogen to support the glutamine production necessary for renal ammoniagenesis.