a1 Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition, School of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, PO Box 226, Reading RG6 6AP, UK
a2 Institute of Human Nutrition and Food Science, Christian Albrechts University, Olhausenstrasse 40, D-24 098 Kiel, Germany
Dietary isoflavones are thought to be cardioprotective due to their structural similarity to oestrogen. Oestrogen is believed to have beneficial effects on endothelial function and may be one of the mechanisms by which premenopausal women are protected against CVD. Decreased NO production and endothelial NO synthase activity, and increased endothelin-1 concentrations, impaired lipoprotein metabolism and increased circulating inflammatory factors result from oestrogen deficiency. Oestrogen acts by binding to oestrogen receptors α and β. Isoflavones have been shown to bind with greater affinity to the latter. Oestrogen replacement therapy is no longer thought to be a safe treatment for prevention of CVD; isoflavones are a possible alternative. Limited evidence from human intervention studies suggests that isoflavones may improve endothelial function, but the available data are not conclusive. Animal studies provide stronger support for a role of isoflavones in the vasculature, with increased vasodilation and endothelial NO synthase activity demonstrated. Cellular mechanisms underlying the effects of isoflavones on endothelial cell function are not yet clear. Possible oestrogen receptor-mediated pathways include modulation of gene transcription, and also non-genomic oestrogen receptor-mediated signalling pathways. Putative non-oestrogenic pathways include inhibition of reactive oxygen species production and up regulation of the protein kinase A pathway (increasing NO bioavailability). Further research is needed to unravel effects of isoflavones on intracellular regulation of the endothelial function. Moreover, there is an urgent need for adequately powered, robustly designed human intervention studies in order to clarify the present equivocal findings.