The methanolic extract of the fruits of Torilis japonica showed a potent inhibition against 5 alpha-reductase activity in vitro. Bioassay-guided fractionation of the methanol extract of the fruits followed by repeated silica gel chromatography led to the isolation of an active principle and its structure was identified as torilin on the basis of spectroscopic data. Torilin (IC50 = 31.7 +/- 4.23 microM) showed a stronger inhibition of 5 alpha-reductase than alpha-linolenic acid (IC50 = 160.3 +/- 24.62 microM) but was weaker than finasteride. (IC50 = 0.38 +/- 0.06 microM). Simple guaiane-type compounds, such as (-)-guaiol and guaiazulene showed weak inhibitory effects on the 5 alpha-reductase activity with IC50 values of f 81.6 microM and 100.8 microM, respectively, while azulene was not active. These results suggest that both degrees of unsaturation and the side-chain in the guaiane skeleton are important for the manifestation of 5 alpha-reductase inhibition.