It has been shown recently that alpha-zearalenol, a resorcyclic acid lactone, prevents bone loss in a rat model of postmenopausal bone loss. We have therefore investigated the effects of this phytoestrogen on endothelial dysfunction induced by estrogen deficiency in rats. Female mature Sprague-Dawley rats underwent a bilateral oophorectomy (OVX rats). Sham-operated animals (sham OVX rats) were used as controls. Three weeks after surgery, animals were randomized to the following treatments: alpha-zearalenol (1 mg/kg/day, i.m., for 4 weeks), 17beta-estradiol (20 microg/kg/day, i.m., for 4 weeks), or their vehicle (100 microl, i.m., of cottonseed oil). Two other groups of rats were treated with alpha-zearalenol or 17beta-estradiol plus the pure estrogen receptor antagonist ICI 182780 (2.5 mg/kg/day, i.m., for 4 weeks). Mean arterial blood pressure (MAP), heart rate (HR), total plasma cholesterol, plasma estradiol, and plasma alpha-zearalenol were studied. We also investigated endothelial-dependent (acetylcholine, 10 nM to 10 microM) and endothelial-independent (sodium nitroprusside, 15 nM to 30 nM) relaxation of aortic rings, as well as N(G)-methyl-L-arginine (L-NMA: 10 to 100 microM)-induced vasoconstriction and calcium-dependent nitric oxide synthase (cNOS) activity in homogenates of lungs taken from both sham OVX rats and OVX rats. Untreated OVX rats had, compared with sham OVX animals, unchanged body weight, MAP, HR, and plasma cholesterol. In contrast oophorectomy reduced plasma estradiol levels (OVX, 2 +/- 0.5 pg/ml; sham OVX, 35 +/- 6 pg/ml), impaired endothelial-dependent relaxation and blunted L-NMA-induced contraction (L-NMA 100 microM: sham OVX, 2.7 +/- 0.3 g/mg tissue; OVX, 1.3 +/- 0.1 g/mg tissue). Moreover OVX rats showed a reduced calcium-dependent NO synthase (cNOS) activity. Treatment with alpha-zearalenol or with 17beta-estradiol reverted the endothelial dysfunction and increased cNOS activity in lung homogenates. These effects were abolished by the pure estrogen receptor antagonist ICI 182780. Our data suggest that alpha-zearalenol improves endothelial-dependent relaxation in OVX rats through an estrogen receptor-mediated effect.