Menopause and estrogen deficiency are associated with apparent intestinal resistance to vitamin D, which can be reversed by estrogen replacement. The in vivo influence of estrogens on duodenal vitamin D receptor (VDR) was studied in three groups of rats: ovariectomized (OVX), sham-operated, and ovariectomized rats treated daily with estrogen (40 microg/kg BW) for 2 weeks (OVX + E). Estrogen administration to OVX rats resulted in a 2-fold increase in VDR messenger RNA transcripts. 1,25(OH)2D3 was shown to bind specifically to one class of receptors in duodenal mucosal extracts, with a dissociation constant of 0.03 nM. Binding was significantly increased in duodenal extracts from OVX + E rats, compared with OVX rats (735 +/- 81 vs. 295 +/- 26 fmol/mg protein; P < 0.001); a comparable, 1.5- to 2-fold increase in VDR protein expression was observed in Western blot analyzes of the duodenal mucosa. Markers of VDR activity were increased in estrogen-exposed rats: calbindin-9k messenger RNA transcript content was 1.4- to 1.6-fold higher, and alkaline phosphatase activity was 1.4- to 3-fold higher in sham-operated and OVX + E, respectively, compared with OVX. 25(OH)D, 1,25(OH)2D, or PTH levels were not altered by estrogen treatment. Cumulatively, these findings suggest that estrogen up-regulates VDR expression in the duodenal mucosa and concurrently increases the responsiveness to endogenous 1,25(OH)2D. Modulation of intestinal VDR activity by estrogen, and subsequent influence on intestinal calcium absorption, could be one of the major protective mechanisms of estrogen against osteoporosis.