Opioid peptides injected into the circulation of rats evoke a vagally mediated bradycardia. The intravenous ED50 of morphine for producing a greater than or equal to 10% fall in heart rate was determined in urethane-anesthetized rats. Hypophysectomy, or adrenalectomy plus treatment with dexamethasone (0.5 microgram/h, s.c., 1 day), procedures that remove endogenous sources of opioid peptides, increased the sensitivity of the animal to morphine bradycardia by 6-10-fold. Conversely, stressing the animals by exposure to cold (4-6 degrees C for two days) elevated the ED50 for morphine sulfate and for beta h-endorphin by about 5-fold. Dexamethasone infusions prevented the cold-induced desensitization to morphine. Intravenous administration of rat corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) also desensitized the animals to morphine. CRF alone produced a fall in blood pressure and heart rate. The bradycardia was prevented by pretreatment with naloxone. These results indicate that the sensitivity of vagal opioid chemoreceptors is influenced by endogenous sources of opioid peptides. This phenomenon can be called 'endogenous tolerance'.