Wistar-Kyoto rats were subjected to 4 h restraint stress (RS) or cold restraint stress (CRS), and jejunal tissues were examined in Ussing chambers for alterations in transport functions compared with tissues from unstressed control rats. The baseline short-circuit current (Isc) was significantly elevated in tissues from RS (approximately 50%) and CRS (100%). Substitution of Cl- eliminated the abnormality, suggesting that stress stimulates Cl- secretion. Electrical transmural stimulation of enteric nerves caused a transient increase in Isc in all tissues. The magnitude of this response was significantly less in tissues from CRS than from control rats; however, the ability of the epithelium to secrete in response to exogenous stimulation with bethanechol or vasoactive intestinal polypeptide was unimpaired, implicating a neural change. Tissue conductance was higher in jejunum from RS and CRS rats than from controls. Increased intestinal epithelial permeability in stressed rats was confirmed by significantly greater fluxes of the inert radiolabeled probes, [3H]mannitol and 51Cr-labeled EDTA. No structural changes were observed. We conclude that acute stressors have profound effects on intestinal epithelial physiology, stimulating ion secretion and reducing barrier function.