Return to ITM Online


Mysterious Ferment

by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon


Shenqu (shen-chu) is an unusual preparation of wheat (or sprouted barley) combined with herbs used as a digestive aid and as a component of treatments for acute ailments, such as "summer heat syndrome." The Chinese names for this material, shenqu (spirit ferment) and liuqu (six ingredient ferment) refer to its method of preparation, as a fermenting mass. Traditionally, wheat flour and wheat bran are combined with herbs and formed into small pieces (sometimes as bricks), put in a basket and covered with flax leaves or paper mulberry leaves (Broussonetia sp.). This is kept warm, which allows naturally occurring yeasts to grow, eventually sprouting yellow hyphae. After about one week, the pieces are taken out of the basket and sun dried. This is the shenqu.

The original product came from Fujian Province and was first recorded in the Yaoxing Bencao (ca. 600 A.D.). The purpose of the fermented grain, when first developed, was as a starter for making wine. The role of the wheat was simply to provide the nutrient base for growing the yeasts; the role of the herbs was to provide some medicinal properties (lowering qi, relieving the surface, promoting digestion), based mainly on the folk uses of the fresh herbs. The herb ingredients of this initial preparation have been recorded as follows:

apricot seed (kuxingren; pounded)
phaeseoli seed (chixiaodou; powdered)
ching-hao (qinghao; juice from fresh plant)
polygonum herb (shuiliao; fresh, broken small)
xanthium herb (canger; fresh, broken small)

These five herbs, with wheat as the sixth ingredient, make liuqu. Over time, this preparation became quite popular and was produced also in other provinces and by several manufacturers. The herb ingredients then changed in recent decades, including replacing wheat (xiaomai) by sprouted barley (maiya) in some preparations. It is often packaged and sold as a tea (cha) and so is often called shenque cha. Many of the new preparations come from Guangzhou. As an example, one of the recent versions is made from barley and the herbs listed are:

crataegus (shanzha; fried)
pogostemon (huoxiang; vinegared)
ching-hao (qinghao; fried)
areca nut (bingpian)
platycodon (jiegeng; ginger processed)
angelica (baizhi, ginger processed)
hoelen (fuling)
cardamom (sharen)

Another, more complex formulation is presented for the product displayed on the following page (from Guangzhou Wanglaoji Pharmaceutical Company), also made with barley sprout rather than wheat. Its herb ingredients listed are: hoelen, licorice, dioscorea, scute, platycodon, chaenomeles, mosla (a cultivated variety of xiangru, elsholtizia), citrus, blue citrus, tu-huo, and tsao-ko. According to Zhu Chunhan, in Clinical Handbook of Chinese Prepared Medicines (1989 Paradigm Publications), a product of the United Pharmaceutical Manufactory of Guangzhou additionally contains ching-hao, succinum, cardamom, and chaenomeles, but not pogostemon. A similar product by the Yang Cheng Pharmaceutical Company of Guangzhou (made with wheat) had been used by ITM in its products for the past 20 years; it has been replaced by a barley-based formulation.

Because the different producers have their own formulations, the terms "shenqu" or "shenqu cha" have general rather than specific meanings. All the products are used to benefit digestion, but they may also have other applications depending on the herbs used. Barley is increasingly selected in place of wheat because it has a good reputation as a digestive aid. Further, for the American market, new requirements for warning labels about wheat content may encourage manufacturers to use barley.

The digestion-promoting function of shenqu is likely due to the yeasts, which are rich in amylase and thus aid digestion of grains; yeasts also have other digestive enzymes in lesser amounts. Most of the other herbs in the original preparation have some functions as digestive aids: polygonum (shuiliao) is specifically used to treat "summer heat" syndrome with digestive symptoms, such as abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea; ching-hao, also for summer heat, is considered supportive of spleen/stomach functions. The formulas listed above, with herbs such as hoelen, cardamom, pogostemon, and citrus, provide some small amounts of additional digestive aids.

The amount of wheat, wheat germ, or sprouted barley used to make these preparations (in Japan, rice may be used) is about 38%. After fermentation, much of the original grain may be digested by the yeasts to yield other substances, so the amount of original grain components left may be small. Very little analysis of shenqu chemical constituents has been reported; the existence of amylase has been confirmed and essential oils are noted (these originate from all the herb materials).

The grain component will retain traces of gluten. Yet, shenqu has been recommended by Western practitioners of Chinese medicine as a digestive aid for those with food sensitivities, including celiac disease, so it probably contains a small enough amount that it is not problematic except for those with the greatest sensitivity. As a precaution, some Chinese herb companies list products with wheat and barley in any form as ones to be avoided by those with gluten sensitivity.

Description of a shenque product sold in China.

Description of a shenqu product sold in China; it is said to regulate the digestive system and relieve stuffy chest, diarrhea, cold, fever, and heat stroke.

Small shenque.

Small shenqu.

Shenque bricks.

Shenqu bricks

December 2005