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 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 weakness

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids, waste products, and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests
  • Urine tests
  • Hydrogen breath test
  • Small bowel biopsy

Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with x-rays.

Your pancreas may be tested. This can be done with a pancreatic function test.

Treatment

In some people, the specific underlying condition must be treated in order to reverse the malabsorption. Other conditions cannot always be treated such as cystic fibrosis, short bowel, or pancreatic insufficiency.

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 by IV.

Prevention

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