Health Library

Malabsorption

Definition

Malabsorption is when the body is not able to get the nutrients it needs from food. Although food is digested, the body has trouble absorbing certain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. The condition

The Intestines
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Causes

Malabsorption is associated with a number of diseases that affect the intestines or other areas of the gastrointestinal tract such as:

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of having malabsorption include:

  • Medical conditions affecting the intestine, such as celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, or Crohns disease
  • Use of laxatives
  • Excessive use of antibiotics
  • Intestinal surgery
  • Excessive use of alcohol
  • Travel to countries with high incidence of intestinal parasites

Symptoms

Malabsorption may cause:

  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal distention and bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Bulky, foul-smelling stools
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Swelling or fluid retention
  • Muscle wasting

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include:

  • Blood test for low levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients
  • X-rays
  • Small bowel biopsy
  • A 72-hour stool collection to test for excess fat
  • Pancreatic function test
  • D-Xylose absorption test checks for abnormality in intestinal absorption
  • Hydrogen breath test to measures how well lactose is being digested

Treatment

The specific underlying condition must be treated in order to reverse the malabsorption.

Depending on the cause and severity of the malabsorption, you may need to make up for nutritional deficiencies by consuming additional nutrients through foods or supplements. A diet rich in vitamins and minerals along with increased quantities of fat, protein, or carbohydrate may be required. Nutrient supplementation may include folate, iron, and vitamin B12. In some cases, nutrients may be given intravenously.

Prevention

Conditions that cause malabsorption need to be managed. Work with your doctor and follow the recommended treatment plan to decrease malabsorption complications.

Resources

American College of Gastroenterology
http://www.gi.org
National Organization for Rare Disorders
http://www.rarediseases.org

Canadian Resources

References

Abdullah M, Firmansyah MA. Clinical approach and management of chronic diarrhea. Acta Med Indones. 2013;45(2):157-165.
Bacterial overgrowth syndrome. Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals website. Available at: hhttp://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal%5Fdisorders/malabsorption%5Fsyndromes/bacterial%5Fovergrowth%5Fsyndrome.html. Updated November 2012. Accessed July 19, 2013.
Chronic diarrhea. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated November 20, 2012. Accessed July 19, 2013.
Diarrheal diseases-acute and chronic. American College of Gastroenterology website. Available at: http://patients.gi.org/topics/diarrhea-acute-and-chronic/. Updated December 2012. Accessed July 19, 2013.
Function studies: Malabsorption tests. Medical University of South Carolina website. Available at: http://www.ddc.musc.edu/ddc%5Fpub/patientInfo/tests-treatments/diagnostic/functionStudies.html. Updated February 18, 2013. Accessed July 19, 2013.
Overview of malabsorption. Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal%5Fdisorders/malabsorption%5Fsyndromes/overview%5Fof%5Fmalabsorption.html. Updated November 2012. Accessed July 19, 2013.