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 breakdown of food and movement of nutrients from gut to the rest of the body. 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. Once food is broken down, the nutrients can pass through the walls of intestine to the blood. Problems with any part of this process can cause malabsorption.

Risk Factors

The risk of malabsorption is higher in people with:

Symptoms

Malabsorption may cause:

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

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect malabsorption based on what is told to them. Blood tests may help to show imbalances in some nutrients. Other tests may be done to look for a cause.

Treatment

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

Special food or supplements may be needed to improve nutrition. Some vitamins, minerals, fats, or proteins may need to be increased. It may be needed if the cause cannot be fully treated or until the cause is managed. Nutrients may also be given by IV.

Prevention

Steps to prevent malabsorption will 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 May 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daus Mahnke, MD  Last Updated: 1/16/2020