Molecular mechanisms of action of the soy isoflavones includes activation of promiscuous nuclear receptors. A review

J Nutr Biochem. 2005 Jun;16(6):321-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2004.11.008.


Consumption of soy has been demonstrated to reduce circulating cholesterol levels, most notably reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in hypercholesterolemic individuals. The component or components that might be responsible for this effect is still a matter of debate or controversy among many researchers. Candidate agents include an activity of soy protein itself, bioactive peptides produced during the digestive process, or the soy isoflavones. Although soy intake may provide other health benefits including preventative or remediative effects on cancer, osteoporosis and symptoms of menopause, this review will focus on isoflavones as agents affecting lipid metabolism. Isoflavones were first discovered as a bioactive agent disrupting estrogen action in female sheep, thereby earning the often-used term 'phytoestrogens'. Subsequent work confirmed the ability of isoflavones to bind to estrogen receptors. Along with the cholesterol-lowering effect of soy intake, research that is more recent has pointed to a beneficial antidiabetic effect of soy intake, perhaps mediated by soy isoflavones. The two common categories of antidiabetic drugs acting on nuclear receptors known as peroxisome proliferator activated receptors (PPARs) are the fibrates and glitazones. We and others have recently asked the research question 'do the soy isoflavones have activities as either "phytofibrates" or "phytoglitazones"?' Such an activity should be able to be confirmed both in vivo and in vitro. In both the in vivo and in vitro cases, this action has indeed been confirmed. Further work suggests a possible action of isoflavones similar to the nonestrogenic ligands that bind the estrogen-related receptors (ERRs). Recently, these receptors have been demonstrated to contribute to lipolytic processes. Finally, evaluation of receptor activation studies suggests that thyroid receptor activation may provide additional clues explaining the metabolic action of isoflavones. The recent advances in the discovery and evaluation of the promiscuous nuclear receptors that bind many different chemical ligands should prove to help explain some of the biological effects of soy isoflavones and other phytochemicals.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isoflavones / pharmacology*
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors / drug effects
  • Phytoestrogens / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / physiology
  • Receptors, Estrogen / drug effects
  • Receptors, Estrogen / physiology
  • Soybeans / chemistry*


  • Isoflavones
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Receptors, Estrogen