Pronounced: Mal-ab-sorp-shunEn Español (Spanish Version)
Malabsorption is the inadequate absorption of nutrients from the intestines. Malabsorption may involve failure to absorb certain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. The condition is associated with a number of diseases that affect the intestines or other areas of the gastrointestinal tract.
Contact your doctor if you suspect malabsorption. Having a doctor treat the underlying condition that affects the intestines is crucial to reversing malabsorption.
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Many diseases or conditions that affect the intestines can cause malabsorption, including:
- Lactose intolerance
- Celiac disease
- Intestinal parasites
- Inflammatory disorders of the intestines such as:
- Inadequate digestion due to:
The following factors increase your chance of developing malabsorption. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
- Family history of disorders affecting the intestine such as celiac disease or cystic fibrosis
- Use of laxatives
- Excessive use of antibiotics
- Intestinal surgery
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Travel to countries with high incidence of intestinal parasites
If you experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to malabsorption. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.
- Weight loss
- Abdominal distention and bloating
- Bulky, foul-smelling stools
- Weakness and fatigue
- Swelling or fluid retention
- Muscle cramping
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Your primary care physician may refer you to a gastroenterologist.
Tests may include the following:
- Blood draw—This tests for low levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
- X-rays (with contrast material)—The small bowel and pancreas are examined.
- Small bowel biopsy—A sample of tissue is taken in the small intestine and examined under a microscope.
- A 72-hour stool collection—For this test, you are given a high fat diet, and your stools are collected for 1-3 days and tested for excess fat.
- Pancreatic function test—For this test, you are given a dose of a chemical called bentiromide, which is normally broken down into another chemical called PABA by the pancreas. PABA then gets absorbed and makes its way into the urine; a urine test showing low levels of PABA suggests a problem with the pancreas.
- Xylose absorption test—For this test, you are given a sugary solution called xylose to drink, after which samples of your blood and urine are collected over several hours; low xylose levels indicate an abnormality in intestinal absorption.
The specific underlying condition must be treated in order to reverse the malabsorption. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
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 injections of vitamin B12. In some cases, such as with severe diarrhea, nutrients may be given intravenously while you are rehydrated.
To help reduce your chances of getting malabsorption, take the following steps:
- Minimize use of certain medications, such as antibiotics, that can adversely affect the function of the intestines.
- Do not drink too much alcohol.
- When traveling to foreign countries with questionable water supply, consume only bottled water, eat only cooked foods, and avoid fresh salads or other washed produce.
- Limit or avoid use of laxatives.
American College of Gastroenterology
National Organization for Rare Disorders
BC Health Guide
Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food Nutrition and Diet Therapy . Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 1996.
Malabsorption tests. Medical University of South Carolina website. Available at: http://www.ddc.musc.edu/ddc_pub/patientInfo/tests-treatments/diagnostic/functionStudies.html . Accessed August 17, 2005.
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary . 18th ed. Philadelphia, PA: FA Davis Company; 1997.
Last reviewed January 2008 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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