Shenqu, called by various names “massa fermentata,” “Chinese yogurt,” and mysterious ferment,” was first recorded in the Yaoxing Bencao (ca. 600 ACE.). It is one of the best botanical aids for digestion and is commonly used as a single or included in Chinese a large number of digestion formulas. It evolved from a process of using fermented wheat as a nutrient to grow yeast as a starter for making wine. The original formula consisted of:
- Apricot seed (xing ren) – pounded
- Phaseoli seed (aduki bean, chi xiao dou) – powdered
- Artemisiae (Artemisia annua, qing hao) juice from fresh plant
- Polygonum (shiliao) – fresh
- Xanthium (Cang er zi) fresh broken and small
These five herbs with wheat were fermented to make a popular wine. Later herbs were added to provide medicinal properties (directing qi downward, relieving the surface, promoting digestion), eventually replacing the sprouted wheat (xiaomai) with sprouted barley (maiya) in some preparations. It continues to be sold as a tea called shenque cha. Subhuti Dharmananda describes a more recent version from Guanzhou province, consisting of:
- Sprouted barley (mai ya)
- hawthorn berry (shanzha) – fried
- pogostemon (huoxiang) – vinegared
- Artemisia annua (qing hao) – fried
- Areca nut (bing pian)
- Platycodon root (jie geng) – processed with ginger
- Angelica (bai zhi) – processed with ginger
- Hoelen (fu ling)
- Cardamom (sha ren)
Problems with starch and grain digestion
The main use for shen qu is to aid in the digestion of grain and starch. Two other herbs for specific digestive function are hawthorn berries to digest fat and meat, and radish seed for removing food stagnation, moving digestive qi downwards, and reducing phlegm.
When people have digestive problems, most hardly know what the cause is or what foods they are having problem processing. It may be the way they are eating, not chewing enough for example. The digestive system, including the liver, is always in the process of learning how to process different foods. Anytime a major change is made, from food or pattern of eating to another, can give rise to problems.
Starch is the storage form of energy. For it to be digested, it must be transformed into sugar. Eating under stress or too fast impedes the process of starch conversion. This is one reason chewing carefully is fundamentally important to digestion, which begins in the mouth where our saliva, rich in the enzyme amylase, begins the important task of changing starch into sugar, which is then continued with further breakdown of nutrients throughout the entire GI tract. Every wonder why cats don’t eat starchy foods? It’s because they lack the ability to change it into an assimilable substance. Grain digestion is another issue: some animals like cattle are better adapted to it, having two stomachs. Humans have adapted to eating grains which has enabled civilization to emerge. However the hybridization and processing of grains has led many of us to suffer mild to severe digestive problems, such as bloating and gas created from starch fermenting in the small intestine. Other chronic digestive problems including food allergies, GI pain, and leaky bowel can also develop.
Another problem digesting grain is that plants actually create protective methods to prevent the digestion of their seed. With beans and grains this is mitigated when the plant begins to sprout and grow, changing its storage form, starch, into its growing form, sugar.
Before we learned how to manufacture various digestive enzymes, people relied on fermented foods and herbs as a digestive aid. Shen qu was one of the ways sprouted grains and herbs, undergoing chemical transformation, a kind of pre-digestion, were used. The advantage of this method of aiding digestion over the pharmaceutical digestive enzymes is that they tend to address a wider field in the complex process of human digestion.
There are different stages of digestion and different herbs that are used to treat digestive problems, but it seems fitting that we begin with the problem of digesting starch in the form of grain because grains and beans are the predominant human food on the planet. Though paleo dieters claim that meat and fat is what our bodies are most suited for, this ignores the fact that we are omnivores with the ability to digest a wide range of foods, and when we relied more on animal meat and fat, the human world population was barely a fraction what it has become today. In addition, the reliance on animal meat for food is not sustainable for the survival of our planet. Bottom line, most of us anyway must be able to digest grains and legumes.
Effects of fermentation on individual plant constituents
A friend and colleague sent me an article entitled Biostudy on Traditional Chinese Medicine Massa Fermenta (shen qu). According to the study, the chemical constituents in the plants such as amygdalin, benzaldehyde, and rutin, shown individually to have toxic properties, were gradually degraded during the process of fermentation so that finished shen qu did not contain amygdaline and benzaldehyde. At the same time, the enzyme amylase gradually increased, and the content of organic acids also had increased. The authors concluded that the amylase activity at least partially explains why shen qu, is specifically, but not exclusively, effective in the digestion of grains.
It is currently being researched on the widely well-known gut microbiota that involves the lungs by the gut-lung axis and the brain by the gut-brain axis. Herbal wisdom has always postulated how most, if not all, disease originates in the gut. In TCM, shen qu is classified as going to the Spleen/Stomach organ network, which is responsible for food breakdown and nutrient absorption. Shen qu has a sweet and spicy flavor signaling its application for digestion, is responsible “for the health of individuals starting from birth and during early life, adulthood, and aging.” The original traditional preparation consisting of Artemisia annua, Polygonum hydropiper, Xanthium sibiricum, red bean, bitter almond, flour, and wheat bran is effective “for dyspepsia and gastroenteritis with low gastric acidity.” They go on to describe how the process of fermentation degrades or transforms some of the chemical components of these individual herbs into useful agents for the GI tract.
One of the mysterious aspects about shen qu is that unlike probiotic supplements sold on the market where gut bacteria is valued on the basis of the amount of live bacteria, shen qu is sold dry and retains its medicinal benefit long after it is dried. For more on this, see this blog post describing the effects of secondary metabolites by herbalist Nancy Angelini.
Fermented herbs are an important method for the making of medicinal preparations in both Chinese as well as Ayurvedic herbal medicine where fermented grape juice with herbs, called “draksha” is commonly used to aid digestion. To my knowledge there is no equivalent practice in recent Western herbal practice which mainly uses digestive bitters such as angostura bitters to stimulate hydrochloric acid in the stomach to stimulate appetite and aid digestion.
Where to purchase shenqu and how to take it
Shen qu is available from the following merchants:
Shen qu is also available from many sources as an alcoholic extract, pills, tablets and dry extracted granules.
A heat-processed form of shen qu called “Jiao shen qu” has the same properties as the unheated, but it is better for diarrhea, IBS or Crohn’s disease.
The typical dosage is between 6 to 15 grams or one can simply boil a dried cube of shen qu in one or two cups of water for a short time, strain and take a cup two or three times before meals. It is ideally taken with hawthorn berry (for protein and fat digestion), a slice of fresh ginger, and the addition of a small piece of tangerine or orange peel. Honey may be added to taste.
While there are no known drug interactions or side effects, because of the presence of wheat, it should be avoided by individuals suffering with celiac disease. Shen qu is also not taken with ginseng probably because it will detract from the value of ginseng.