Formonenetin is a phytochemical that is known as a flavonoid. It belongs to the subgroup of flavonoids, known as isoflavones. It is found in red clover and other plants. This compound is a weak phytoestrogen, meaning it can bind to the receptors that bind the female hormone estrogen. Having phytoestrogens in one’s diet is usually considered beneficial.
Estrogen receptors relay a signal when bound to estrogen. This causes a number of biological effects. When a phytoestrogen binds to the receptor, it can block estrogen from binding. This can result in anti-cancer effects for cancers that are caused by estrogen binding, such as breast cancer. Sometimes, however, the binding can activate estrogen receptors, and formononetin has activated cancer cells in lab tests.
Estrogen production drops dramatically at menopause, leading to symptoms such as hot flashes. Traditionally, synthetic estrogen has been used to treat these symptoms. It has turned out to have severe side effects, however. Many people have turned to herbal treatments to treat the symptoms of menopause, since they appear to be safer. Black cohosh is one such herbal treatment. It has been reported to contain formononetin, but researchers have been unable to find this compound in any preparations of this herb.
Formononetin is converted to a much more potent phytoestrogen in the stomachs of cattle and sheep. This is an isoflavone known as equol. This transformation takes place due to the activities of the bacteria in the stomachs of these animals.
Not a typical isoflavone, formononetin has a methyl group attached to an oxygen atom on the molecule. It can be stored as a molecule known as a glucoside. This indicates that a sugar is attached to the molecule, making it more soluble in water. Thus, it can be stored in the cells at a higher concentration. The glucoside of formononetin is known as ononin.
Compounds based on the isoflavone structure are known as isoflavonoids. Plants have a great variety of isoflavonoid compounds. It is estimated that there are over 1,600 different such compounds in a large variety of plants. Formononetin is an important molecule in the early steps of plants’ synthesis of many of these compounds. These molecules are not part of the primary metabolism of the plant, and are therefore known as secondary compounds.
Formonentin is also important in the interaction of fungi that help plants survive. There are fungi known as mycorrhizae that live in the soil and have a symbiotic association with specific plant roots. They provide nutrients to the plants and help with water uptake, and the plants provide them with carbon. In some cases, these fungi help protect the plants against pathogenic organisms. Formononetin stimulates the spores of some types of mycorrhizal fungi to germinate.