Epidemiological data suggest that regular intake of isoflavones from soy reduces the incidence of estrogen-dependent and aging-associated disorders, such as menopause symptoms in women, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Equol, produced from daidzein, is the isoflavone-derived metabolite with the greatest estrogenic and antioxidant activity. Consequently, equol has been endorsed as having many beneficial effects on human health. The conversion of daidzein into equol takes place in the intestine via the action of reductase enzymes belonging to incompletely characterized members of the gut microbiota. While all animal species analyzed so far produce equol, only between one third and one half of human subjects (depending on the community) are able to do so, ostensibly those that harbor equol-producing microbes. Conceivably, these subjects might be the only ones who can fully benefit from soy or isoflavone consumption. This review summarizes current knowledge on the microorganisms involved in, the genetic background to, and the biochemical pathways of, equol biosynthesis. It also outlines the results of recent clinical trials and meta-analyses on the effects of equol on different areas of human health and discusses briefly its presumptive mode of action.
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