In women, arterial pressure generally increases after menopause, but several studies suggest that women who eat large amounts of plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) experience a slower rise in the incidence of postmenopausal hypertension. This suggests that both ovarian hormones (principally estrogen) and phytoestrogens may protect at least some women from hypertension. The present study tests the hypothesis that phytoestrogens blunt hypertension in estrogen-depleted female spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR). Three-week-old ovariectomized SHR were fed one of four diets that contained basal (0.6%) or high (8%) NaCl with or without dietary phytoestrogens for 9 wk. In SHR on the basal NaCl diet, arterial pressure was unaffected by the removal of dietary phytoestrogens. In contrast, in SHR on the high-NaCl diet, arterial pressure was significantly higher in rats on the phytoestrogen-free (204 +/- 4 mmHg) compared with the phytoestrogen-replete (153 +/- 4 mmHg) diet. Ganglionic blockade resulted in reductions in arterial pressure that were directly related to the dietary NaCl-induced increases in arterial pressure. Together, these data indicate that dietary phytoestrogens protect ovariectomized female SHR from dietary NaCl-sensitive hypertension and that the sympathetic nervous system plays an important role in this effect. Furthermore, these results demonstrate that dietary phytoestrogens can have a major impact on the interpretation of studies into the physiological role of estrogen in females.