Behavioral effects of endocrine-disrupting substances: phytoestrogens

ILAR J. 2004;45(4):443-54. doi: 10.1093/ilar.45.4.443.


A major source of endocrine-disrupting substances, usually not considered in laboratory animal experiments, is the diet used in research investigations. Soy represents the main protein source in almost all natural-ingredient commercially available formulated diets. Soy-derived isoflavones are the most abundant and in many ways the most studied phytoestrogens, and phytoestrogens (isoflavones) are known endocrine disruptors. Research is reviewed that identifies the physiological and behavioral endocrine-disrupting effects of dietary phytoestrogens (isoflavones) in animal diets, including most of the isoflavones, which are in a glycoside form and biologically inactive, and those in the gastrointestinal tract, which are biologically active. The isoflavones genistein and daidzein have similar molecular weights and structural characteristics to that of 17-beta estradiol, which may enable them to exert estrogenic and antiestrogenic properties are described and characterized. Daidzein can be further metabolized to the potent and abundant molecule equol, which in rodents is produced in very large amounts and represents the major circulating metabolite among all biologically active isoflavones. Equol has the unique and important ability to specifically bind 5 alpha-dihydro-testosterone, and to act in turn to inhibit the action of this potent androgen. The specific influence of dietary soy phytoestrogens on consumptive, learning and memory, and anxiety-related behaviors is identified. Regulatory behaviors such as food and water intake, adipose deposition and leptin, and insulin levels affected by dietary isoflavones are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects*
  • Diet
  • Endocrine Glands / drug effects*
  • Endocrine Glands / pathology
  • Endocrine Glands / physiopathology
  • Estrogen Antagonists / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Isoflavones / toxicity
  • Male
  • Phytoestrogens / toxicity*
  • Rats
  • Toxicity Tests / methods*


  • Estrogen Antagonists
  • Isoflavones
  • Phytoestrogens