What is malabsorption?
Malabsorption is when your body has trouble digesting food and absorbing nutrients. Common symptoms include bloating, weight loss, fatigue, muscle weakness, abdominal discomfort, bad smelling stools, rashes, swollen feet and hands, and nausea and vomiting.
Malabsorption refers to poor absorption of nutrients by the intestines. When you are experiencing malabsorption, your body has problems digesting food and taking in nutrients. This can affect your growth and development. Malabsorption often coincides with a number of specific illnesses.
Symptoms of malabsorption
If you have malabsorption, you can experience bloating as one of the symptoms, where your belly feels swollen after eating. The digestive condition frequently causes abdominal discomfort and frequent diarrhea. Diarrhea is often an early indicator but isn’t always a symptom of malabsorption.
Other signs and symptoms include:
Causes of malabsorption
The causes of malabsorption are widespread and varied. Your body could be struggling to absorb nutrients into your bloodstream from your intestinal tract for many reasons, including:
If you had a surgery that involved taking out part of the intestine you may be more at risk for malabsorption. Gallbladder removal is an example of surgery that affects your intestines and digestion.
Your pancreas aids in digestion, so issues with your pancreatic function can cause malabsorption. A good example is chronic pancreatitis, in which your pancreas becomes inflamed and ineffective.
Cystic fibrosis affects pancreatic enzymes, and it also commonly causes malabsorption.
Digestive enzymes help break down your food into nutrients that can be absorbed and used by your body. Therefore, a lack or absence of certain enzymes in your digestive system can cause malabsorption.
Conditions that affect the intestines directly can lead to malabsorption. For example, celiac disease is an immune system reaction to gluten that damages the intestines and their ability to absorb nutrients.
Diagnosis for malabsorption
There is no single test that your doctor can do to diagnose malabsorption or the underlying cause. Therefore the tests you receive will depend on your symptoms and situation. Your doctor may carry out a series of tests, such as:
Stool samples can be used to determine whether fat is being properly absorbed during digestion. A large amount of fat in your stool could indicate malabsorption.
Hydrogen breath test
Your doctor may also perform a breath test. This is to establish if you have any lactose intolerance. Your doctor will give you a milk-sugar (lactose) solution by mouth and then analyze your breath for hydrogen. The presence of hydrogen in your breath could mean you have malabsorption.
In an effort to examine your intestines, your doctor may do an endoscopy. It involves putting a flexible tube with a camera into your intestines. Your doctor should be able to see if there are any physical problems.
Biopsy of the small intestine
A tissue sample from your small intestine can be analyzed to determine whether you have any infections or conditions causing the malabsorption.
An X-ray of the abdomen will help your doctor to diagnose things like bowel obstruction and other abnormalities.
Treatments for malabsorption
Treatment for malabsorption depends on the underlying cause.
In mild cases, dietary adjustments and routine supplementation may be sufficient to treat your malabsorption. For example, eliminating foods, like gluten or dairy, that your body does not produce enough enzymes to process may be necessary. Or if your body struggles to absorb fat, a low-fat diet may help.
However, you might have an ongoing malabsorption problem if you have conditions like celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, or Crohn’s disease. Treatments and lifestyle adjustments for these conditions should help with your malabsorption.
It is very important that you treat the underlying cause for your malabsorption. Go to your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms such as unexpected weight loss or frequent diarrhea. Work with your doctor to come up with a treatment plan tailored to your health situation.
Medically Reviewed on 12/30/2020
Clinical Education: “Digestive Enzymes.”
International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Malabsorption”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Malabsorption”
Medical University of South Carolina: “Malabsorption Tests.”
StatPearls: “Malabsorption Syndromes.”
University of Michigan: “Malabsorption Syndrome.”
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