Oestradiol modulates paracellular permeability and tight junction (TJ) function in endothelia and reproductive tissues, but whether the ovarian hormones and cycle affect the paracellular pathway in the intestinal epithelium remains unclear. Oestrogen receptors (ERs) are expressed in intestinal epithelial cells, and oestradiol regulates epithelium formation. We examined the effects of oestrous cycle stage, oestradiol benzoate (EB), and progesterone (P) on colonic paracellular permeability (CPP) in the female rat, and whether EB affects expression of the TJ proteins in the rat colon and the human colon cell line Caco-2. In cyclic rats, CPP was determined through lumen-to-blood (51)Cr-labelled EDTA clearance, and in Ussing chambers for dextran permeability. CPP was also examined in ovariectomized (OVX) rats treated with P or EB, with and without the ER antagonist ICI 182,780, or with the selective agonists for ER beta (propyl pyrazole triol; PPT) or ER beta (diarylpropionitrile; DPN). In oestrus rats, CPP was reduced (P < 0.01) relative to dioestrus. In OVX rats, EB dose-dependently decreased CPP, an effect mimicked by DPN and blocked by ICI 182,780, whereas P had no effect. Oestradiol increased occludin mRNA and protein in the colon (P < 0.05), but not zona occludens (ZO)-1. Further, EB and DPN enhanced occludin and junctional adhesion molecule (JAM)-A expression in Caco-2 cells without change in ZO-1, an effect blocked by ICI 182,780. These data show that oestrogen reinforces intestinal epithelial barrier through ER beta-mediated up-regulation of the transmembrane proteins occludin and JAM-A determining paracellular spaces. These findings highlight the importance of the ER beta pathway in the control of colonic paracellular transport and mucosal homeostasis.