Ovarian hormones are biomarkers for breast cancer risk. Soybean consumption may be responsible in part for lower levels of ovarian hormones and decreased rates of breast cancer in women in Asia compared with Western populations. Soybeans contain a significant amount of the isoflavones daidzein and genistein, which are weak estrogens. The purpose of this study was to determine whether soya feeding decreases circulating levels of ovarian hormones and gonadotropins. Ten healthy, regularly cycling women consumed a constant soya-containing diet on a metabolic unit, starting on day 2 of a menstrual cycle until day 2 of the next cycle. Blood and urine samples were obtained daily for one menstrual cycle before and during soy feeding. The diet was calculated to maintain constant body weight, included 400 kilocalories from a 36-ounce portion of soymilk, and provided 113-207 mg/day (154.0+/-8.4 mg/day, mean +/- SE) of total isoflavones. For the group, the soya diet provided more carbohydrate and less protein than the home diets. Daily consumption of the soya diet reduced circulating levels of 17beta-estradiol by 25% (P<0.01, Wilcoxon signed rank test, two-tailed) and of progesterone by 45% (P<0.0001) compared with levels during the home diet period but had no effect on luteinizing hormone or follicle-stimulating hormone. Mean menstrual cycle length did not change during the soya diet; a slight decrease in mean luteal cycle length was marginally statistically significant (P = 0.06). Urinary excretion of isoflavones was 33.8+/-5.3 mg/day (mean +/- SE) and when expressed as percentage of intake, varied substantially (21.9+/-3.3% of intake; range, 9.1-36.7%) among the subjects. Mean daily serum levels of daidzein and genistein (free and conjugated forms) 15 h after soymilk were 2.89+/-0.53 microg/ml and 0.85+/-0.22 microg/ml, respectively, indicating systemic bioavailability of these substances. Secondary analyses by multiple regression showed that decreases in follicular and luteal phase 17beta-estradiol levels were positively associated with urinary isoflavone excretion, an association affected by age, and were inversely associated with decreases in protein intake. Decreases in progesterone levels during the soya diet were inversely associated with increases in intakes of genistein and were affected by the interaction of the intakes of daidzein with energy or with fiber. Consumption of an isoflavone-containing soya diet reduced levels of ovarian steroids in normal women over the entire menstrual cycle without affecting gonadotropins. This suggests that at least under the conditions of this study, soya-induced reductions of circulating ovarian steroids are not mediated by gonadotropins. Decreases in ovarian hormones are related to isoflavones contained in soy and also to energy intake and other components such as protein and fiber but not fat. Our results may explain decreased ovarian hormone levels and decreased risk of breast cancer in populations consuming soya diets and have implications for reducing breast cancer risk by dietary intervention.