In lactating dairy cows, the onset of negative net energy balance (EB) at parturition causes a reduction in plasma leptin and is also associated with increased concentration of growth hormone (GH) and decreased concentration of insulin. These observations raise the possibility that opposite changes in plasma insulin and GH are partly responsible for reduced plasma leptin. To test this hypothesis, we first examined the effects of undernutrition without the confounding influence of parturition by using late lactating dairy cows fed 120% of their nutrient requirements or restricted to 33% of maintenance requirements. Plasma leptin was reduced within 24 h of feed restriction, and was associated with increased plasma GH and decreased plasma insulin. Complete food deprivation for 48 h caused similar changes in the plasma concentration of leptin. To determine if an elevation in GH is responsible for the fall in plasma leptin, dairy cows were treated with excipient or bovine somatotropin in early lactation or in late lactation. Growth hormone treatment had no significant effect on plasma leptin irrespective of stage of lactation. Finally, the effects of insulin were studied by performing euglycemic hyperinsulinemic clamps in midlactating dairy cows. After 96 h of hyperinsulinemia, plasma leptin was increased significantly. These data indicate that insulin regulates plasma leptin in lactating dairy cows. They also suggest that, in undernourished lactating dairy cows, reduced plasma insulin could account for a portion of the decline in plasma leptin but that elevated plasma GH is unlikely to have a major effect.