Definition

Malabsorption is a problem getting nutrients into the body. It can happen even when someone is eating enough.

The Intestines

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Causes

There are many steps in the process of digestion. The stomach and intestines need to be able to push food through the system. The stomach, liver and pancreas make fluids that help break down food. The nutrients from food pass through the walls of the intestine to the blood. Problems with any part of this process can cause malabsorption.

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in people who have:

  • Problems of the liver or pancreas
  • Difficulty moving food in the intestines
  • Crohn disease, celiac disease, parasite infection, or other disease of the intestines
  • Used laxatives
  • Used antibiotics
  • Had surgery on the intestines
  • Alcohol use disorder

Symptoms

Problems may be:

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

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. This may be enough to make the diagnosis.

Stool tests may be done to confirm the diagnosis. Other tests may be done to look for a cause.

Treatment

Treatment will be based on the cause. This may stop malabsorption.

Special food or supplements may be needed to improve nutrition. A person may need more vitamins, minerals, fats, or proteins.

Prevention

Prevention guidelines depend on what has caused this health problem. Some causes cannot be prevented.

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:

Bacterial overgrowth syndrome. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal_disorders/malabsorption_syndromes/bacterial_overgrowth_syndrome.html. Accessed September 25, 2020. .

Chronic diarrhea. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/chronic-diarrhea. Accessed September 25, 2020.

Diarrheal diseases—acute and chronic. American College of Gastroenterology website. Available at: http://patients.gi.org/topics/diarrhea-acute-and-chronic. Accessed September 25, 2020.

Overview of malabsorption. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/malabsorption-syndromes/overview-of-malabsorption. Accessed September 25, 2020.

Schiller LR, Pardi DS, et al. Chronic Diarrhea: Diagnosis and Management. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017 Feb;15(2):182-193.e3.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 9/25/2020