Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Malabsorption

(Malabsorption Syndrome)

Definition

Malabsorption is when the body has trouble absorbing certain nutrients. Not getting enough nutrients from food can cause problems. These problems can happen even when someone is eating as they should.

The Intestines

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Causes  ^

The liver makes a fluid called bile. It helps break down food in the intestines. The pancreas also makes an enzyme. The freed nutrients can then pass into the bloodstream through the wall of the intestine. Malabsorption may be caused by problems:

  • That make it hard for the intestines to pass nutrients such as Crohn disease or celiac disease
  • With the pancreas
  • With the liver
  • Breaking down food
  • With muscle movement in the bowels

Risk Factors  ^

Your chances of malabsorption are higher for:

  • Having any of the problems listed above
  • Using laxatives
  • Using antibiotics
  • Prior surgery on the intestines
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Travel to countries that put you at risk for an infection from a parasite

Symptoms  ^

Malabsorption may cause:

  • Weight loss
  • Bloating and swelling in the belly
  • Diarrhea
  • Bulky, foul-smelling stools
  • Weak muscles
  • Feeling tired

Diagnosis  ^

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

You may need:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests
  • Urine tests
  • Hydrogen breath test
  • Small bowel biopsy
  • X-rays
  • A test to see how your pancreas works

Treatment  ^

Treatment depends on the cause. Sometimes, it will fix any problems with malabsorption.

You may need to make up for lost nutrients. This can be done with food or supplements. . You may need to eat more vitamins, minerals, fats, or proteins. In some cases, nutrients may be given by IV.

A dietitian will be able to help you.

Prevention  ^

There is no way to prevent malabsorption because it depends on the cause.

RESOURCES:

American College of Gastroenterology
http://patients.gi.org

NORD—National Organization for Rare Disorders
https://rarediseases.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
https://www.cag-acg.org

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

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 Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal_disorders/malabsorption_syndromes/bacterial_overgrowth_syndrome.html. Updated February 2018. Accessed August 13, 2018.

Chronic diarrhea. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114891/Chronic-diarrhea. Updated July 1, 2016. Accessed August 13, 2018.

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 August 13, 2018.

Overview of malabsorption. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/malabsorption-syndromes/overview-of-malabsorption. Updated February 2018. Accessed August 13, 2018.

Last reviewed June 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daus Mahnke, MD  Last Updated: 8/13/2018