Dietary flavonoids: effects on xenobiotic and carcinogen metabolism

Toxicol In Vitro. 2006 Mar;20(2):187-210. doi: 10.1016/j.tiv.2005.06.048. Epub 2005 Nov 11.


Flavonoids are present in fruits, vegetables and beverages derived from plants (tea, red wine), and in many dietary supplements or herbal remedies including Ginkgo Biloba, Soy Isoflavones, and Milk Thistle. Flavonoids have been described as health-promoting, disease-preventing dietary supplements, and have activity as cancer preventive agents. Additionally, they are extremely safe and associated with low toxicity, making them excellent candidates for chemopreventive agents. The cancer protective effects of flavonoids have been attributed to a wide variety of mechanisms, including modulating enzyme activities resulting in the decreased carcinogenicity of xenobiotics. This review focuses on the flavonoid effects on cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes involved in the activation of procarcinogens and phase II enzymes, largely responsible for the detoxification of carcinogens. A number of naturally occurring flavonoids have been shown to modulate the CYP450 system, including the induction of specific CYP isozymes, and the activation or inhibition of these enzymes. Some flavonoids alter CYPs through binding to the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), a ligand-activated transcription factor, acting as either AhR agonists or antagonists. Inhibition of CYP enzymes, including CYP 1A1, 1A2, 2E1 and 3A4 by competitive or mechanism-based mechanisms also occurs. Flavones (chrysin, baicalein, and galangin), flavanones (naringenin) and isoflavones (genistein, biochanin A) inhibit the activity of aromatase (CYP19), thus decreasing estrogen biosynthesis and producing antiestrogenic effects, important in breast and prostate cancers. Activation of phase II detoxifying enzymes, such as UDP-glucuronyl transferase, glutathione S-transferase, and quinone reductase by flavonoids results in the detoxification of carcinogens and represents one mechanism of their anticarcinogenic effects. A number of flavonoids including fisetin, galangin, quercetin, kaempferol, and genistein represent potent non-competitive inhibitors of sulfotransferase 1A1 (or P-PST); this may represent an important mechanism for the chemoprevention of sulfation-induced carcinogenesis. Importantly, the effects of flavonoids on enzymes are generally dependent on the concentrations of flavonoids present, and the different flavonoids ingested. Due to the low oral bioavailability of many flavonoids, the concentrations achieved in vivo following dietary administration tend to be low, and may not reflect the concentrations tested under in vitro conditions; however, this may not be true following the ingestion of herbal preparations when much higher plasma concentrations may be obtained. Effects will also vary with the tissue distribution of enzymes, and with the species used in testing since differences between species in enzyme activities also can be substantial. Additionally, in humans, marked interindividual variability in drug-metabolizing enzymes occurs as a result of genetic and environmental factors. This variability in xenobiotic metabolizing enzymes and the effect of flavonoid ingestion on enzyme expression and activity can contribute to the varying susceptibility different individuals have to diseases such as cancer. As well, flavonoids may also interact with chemotherapeutic drugs used in cancer treatment through the induction or inhibition of their metabolism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / pharmacokinetics*
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism
  • Diet
  • Drug Interactions
  • Flavonoids / pharmacology*
  • Glucuronosyltransferase / metabolism
  • Glutathione Transferase / metabolism
  • Humans
  • NAD(P)H Dehydrogenase (Quinone) / metabolism
  • Sulfotransferases / metabolism
  • Xenobiotics / pharmacokinetics*


  • Carcinogens
  • Flavonoids
  • Xenobiotics
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System
  • NAD(P)H Dehydrogenase (Quinone)
  • Glucuronosyltransferase
  • Glutathione Transferase
  • Sulfotransferases