Supine hypertension, which is very common in patients with autonomic failure, limits the use of pressor agents and induces nighttime natriuresis. In 13 patients with severe orthostatic hypotension due to autonomic failure (7 women, 6 men, 72 +/- 3 yr) and supine hypertension, the effect of 30 mg nifedipine (n = 10) and 0.025 to 0.2 mg/h nitroglycerin patch (n = 11) on supine BP, renal sodium handling, and orthostatic tolerance was determined. Medications were given at 8 p.m.; patients stood up at 8 a.m. Nitroglycerin was removed at 6 a.m. Compared with placebo, nifedipine and nitroglycerin decreased systolic BP during the night by a maximum of 37 +/- 9 and 36 +/- 10 mmHg, respectively (P < 0.01). At 8 a.m., supine systolic BP was 23 +/- 7 mmHg lower with nifedipine than with placebo (P < 0.05), but was similar with nitroglycerin and placebo. Sodium excretion during the night was not reduced with nitroglycerin (0.13 +/- 0.02 mmol/mg creatinine [Cr] versus 0.15 +/- 0.03 mmol/mg Cr with placebo), but it was increased with nifedipine (0.35 +/- 0.06 mmol/mg Cr versus 0.13 +/- 0.02 mmol/mg Cr with placebo, P < 0.05). Nifedipine but not nitroglycerin worsened orthostatic hypotension in the morning. It is concluded that nifedipine and transdermal nitroglycerin are effective in controlling supine hypertension in patients with autonomic failure. However, nifedipine has a prolonged depressor effect and worsens orthostatic hypotension in the morning. The decrease in pressure natriuresis that would be expected with the substantial decrease in BP obtained with nitroglycerin and nifedipine may be offset by a direct effect of both drugs on renal sodium handling.