Shen Qu, also known as medicated leaven or Massa fermentata, is a famous Chinese herb that is good at curing indigestion. It was developed by Liu Yi, a skillful physician in Han Dynasty. It is said that the invention of this herb was inspired by the self-treatment behavior of wild animals. It comes from Yao Xing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs). And in Ben Cao Gang Mu (The Compendium of Materia Medica), Li Shizhen included it into the section of grain and commented that: “The ancients used to utilize distiller’s yeast as a drug. Later Massa fermentata was made specifically for medicinal purpose. And its efficacy is much better.”
What is Shen Qu?
It refers to the fermented mixture of flour and other herbal ingredients. In China it is produced all over the country. The process of manufacture consists of 8 steps: 1. prepare a relatively large amount of flour or bran; 2. blend them well with almond paste, adzuki bean powder, and juice of fresh wormwood, cocklebur, and pale smartweed; 3. make the mixture appropriately wet; 4. place the mixture into a basket; 5 cover them with apocynum venetum leaves or paper mulberry leaves; 6. keep warm and let them ferment for a week; 7. take it out when yellow mycelium grows out; 8. cut it into small pieces and dry them in the sun. Medicinally it is used raw or fried.
It is in shape of a square or rectangular block, about 3cm wide, about 1cm thick, and with yellowish brown and rough skin. It is hard, brittle, easily broken, off-white, and with uneven sections, brown residue, and voids left by fermentation. It has stale odor and bitter taste. The better one is considered drier, staler, and with no moth holes and fewer impurities.
Since this is a yeast preparation, its main chemical constituents are yeast, amylase, vitamin B complex, ergosterol, protein and fat, volatile oil, and so on.
Shen Qu varieties
In clinical applications, it can be divided into a few different varieties – the single-piece, the bran-fried, the charred, and more. So, it is a good idea to choose the right one according to the syndrome differentiation.
1) The single-piece means the fried raw mixture, which can be directly soaked with boiling water for tea. Since it can serve as an appetizer, spleen tonic or sudorific, it is often used to combined with Shan Zha (Hawthorn Berry), Zi Su Ye (Perilla Leaf), and Huo Xiang (Patchouli) for the treatment of cold and indigestion;
2) As the name implies, the bran-fried, or Chao Shen Qu, means the raw mixture fried with bran. The steps are to spread barley bran evenly in the heated wok, pour the raw mixture in when the smoke occurs, quickly stir-fry until they become brown, screen out the barley bran, and finally let cool. This variety features sweet and fragrant smell. Since it is specialized at awakening abdomen and harmonizing stomach, it is mainly used for dyspepsia, abdominal distention, no appetite, borborygmus, and diarrhea.
3) The charred means the raw block that is stir-fried in a heated wok with gentle heat until it turns burnt brown and comes with burnt aroma.
Shen Qu benefits
Clinically it is frequently used to treat a variety of ailments, such as chronic gastritis, atrophic gastritis, acute gastroenteritis, amoebic dysentery, abdominal distension, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and children’s simple indigestion, anorexia, dyspepsia, and more. People might have dismissed it because of its “old fashioned” and low price. As a matter of fact, Shen Qu herb, literally translated, means “magic yeast”. That’s to say, its healing power is really remarkable and it often works wonder in treating some difficult miscellaneous diseases when used well. So, what is the magic of this homely herb? Why it is still so popular these days? Now, let’s first take a look at its modern pharmacology.
Modern pharmacological actions of medicated leaven
Thanks to the large amount of yeast and vitamin B compound contained in medicated leaven, it can help whet the appetite, maintain normal digestive function, and so on.
Sample Massa fermentata recipes on herbal remedies
The Chinese Materia Medica says that it is sweet and acrid in flavor, and warm and non-toxic in nature. It goes to meridians of spleen and stomach. Basic functions are strengthening the spleen and stomach, increasing appetite, and helping digestion. Main uses and indications include food stagnation, indigestion, abdominal distention, loss of appetite, vomiting, and dysentery. Recommended dosage is from 10 to 15 grams in decoction, pills, or powder.
1) Xiao Shi Wan from Tai Ping Hui Min He Ji Ju Fang (Formulas of the Peaceful Benevolent Dispensary). It is combined with Wu Mei (Mume Fruit), Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger Root), and Xiao Mai Nie (wheat tiller) to treat indigestion, tight chest congestion, occasional bloating abdomen and flanks, chronic loss of appetite, bitter taste, and emaciation due to deficiency of both spleen and stomach.
2) Qu Zhu Wan from Formulas of the Peaceful Benevolent Dispensary. It is formulated with Cang Zhu (Atractylodes) to make pills for the treatment of sudden diarrhea due to hot weather or overeating and chest tightness and congestion.
3) Duan Xia Wan from Bai Yi Xuan Fang (Precisely-selected Prescriptions) by Sun Ying Zhong. It is coupled with Wu Zhu Yu (cornel) to cure sudden diarrhea.
4) Shen Qu Wan from Pu Ji Fang (Prescriptions of Universal Relief). It is matched with Wu Yi (fructus ulmi), cornel, and natural ginger juice to heal recurrent dysentery that lasts day and night, accompanied with abdominal cold pain.
5) Shen Qu San from Tai Ping Sheng Hui Fang (Taiping Holy Prescriptions for Universal Relief). It is joined with Shu Di Huang (Prepared Rehmannia) and Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes) to cure postpartum cold dysentery accompanied with sharp pain below the umbilicus.
Clinical research of Shen Qu
Reports said that the appropriate compatibility of it can treat many diseases. And here are some examples.
a) 129 cases of children with simple indigestion have been treated with 50% medicated leaven decoction. And it showed a better effect on checking diarrhea than the western medicine used in the control group.
b) 78 cases of diarrhea have been treated with Massa fermentata-based Zhangzhou Shen Qu decoction, 15g each time in adult or reduced amount in children, twice a day. And the efficiency was 100%.
Shen Qu side effects and contraindications
According to the theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), use Shen Qu with care during pregnancy and in the cases of deficient spleen Yin, and hyperacidity of stomach fire. In addition, it shouldn’t be used in patient with hyperacidity because taking it may cause acid reflux.
a) Zhong Jua Er Ke Za Zhi (Chinese journal of pediatrics), 1960;3:231;
b) Zhong Cheng Yao (Chinese Patent Medicine), 1992;2:23.