When the small intestine is unable to absorb certain nutrients, it’s known as malabsorption.
Malabsorption occurs when the small intestine fails to absorb certain nutrients from food into the bloodstream. This may include:
Causes of Malabsorption
There are a number of conditions that can prevent the small intestine from properly absorbing nutrients, including:
- Biliary atresia
- Celiac disease
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Crohn’s disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- Lactase deficiency, which can lead to lactose intolerance
- Schwachman-Diamond syndrome
- Short bowel syndrome
- Tropical sprue
- Whipple’s disease
Malabsorption disorders and syndromes can also be caused by:
- Intestinal damage resulting from inflammation, an infection, a traumatic injury, certain medications, surgery or radiation therapy
- Long-term antibiotic use
- Parasites such as Giardia lamblia, Necator americanus and Strongyloides stercoralis
Symptoms of Malabsorption
Some of the common symptoms of malabsorption include gas, bloating and chronic diarrhea. However, specific symptoms will vary depending on the type of nutrient that’s not being absorbed. For example:
- Unabsorbed proteins can cause hair dryness, hair loss and fluid retention (edema).
- Failing to absorb carbohydrates can cause gas, bloating and explosive diarrhea.
- Unabsorbed fats can cause stools to be soft, bulky, light in color and foul-smelling. The stools may float in the toilet or stick to the side of the bowl.
- Failing to absorb certain vitamins can cause malnutrition, weight loss, muscle loss, anemia and low blood pressure.
Some of these symptoms develop when the unabsorbed nutrients are digested, while others occur due to whatever deficiency the malabsorption has caused. Malabsorption can also cause women to stop menstruating and can lead to growth problems in children.
Since malabsorption often causes fat to be present in stools, stool tests are considered to be the most reliable method of testing for this condition. Other diagnostic methods include:
- Blood tests
- Breath tests
- Imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) scans
- Biopsies of the small intestine
Treatment for Malabsorption
The gastroenterology specialists at Tampa General Hospital generally treat malabsorption disorders and syndromes by addressing the underlying cause, managing any resulting symptoms and ensuring that the patient receives the nutrients that he or she needs moving forward. This might involve making changes to the patient’s diet and recommending certain vitamin or enzyme supplements.