The malabsorption occurs when nutrients are not absorbed properly extracted and food during the digestive process. This can result in a deficiency of vitamins, proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, and other nutrients that are important for the development and regulation of the body’s systems.

What is intestinal malabsorption

Typically, during digestion, nutrients are extracted from food and absorbed by the small intestine. These nutrients are transported through the bloodstream and into tissues, muscles, and organs to support their functions.

In case of malabsorption, a collapse in this intestinal process occurs in such a way that the nutrients are not absorbed properly, but are excreted through the feces. Malabsorption can be temporary, for example in the so-called stomach flu, in which vomiting or diarrhea can prevent efficient absorption of nutrients.

This type of malabsorption disappears when the underlying disease resolves. However, chronic (long-lasting) cases of malabsorption are cause for concern and should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Symptoms associated with malabsorption include vomiting, nausea, bloating, chronic diarrhea, muscle wasting, and weight loss. The malabsorption that occurs in children can limit their growth. On the other hand, it can also lead to other diseases caused by poor nutrition.

Malabsorption is a serious condition that can cause diarrhea or loose stools. Persistent diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be life threatening.

Seek immediate medical attention if you detect symptoms of dehydration, including sunken eyes; lethargy; elevated heart rate; any change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as fainting or unresponsiveness; and loss of skin elasticity.

You should also seek immediate medical attention if you or your child are treating malabsorption, but symptoms recur or persist.

What are the symptoms of malabsorption

Symptoms of malabsorption not only affect the gastrointestinal system, but also the growth and development of a child. Depletion of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients can also increase susceptibility to diseases and conditions.

The following gastrointestinal symptoms often occur in malabsorption:

  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Bloating, distention, or abdominal swelling
  • Bulky stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Other symptoms of malabsorption

Malabsorption can cause symptoms throughout the body, including:

  • Developmental delays and lack of growth
  • Dry Skin
  • Bleeding easily or bruising
  • Fractures
  • Frequent infections
  • Growth impairment
  • Muscular weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss

Serious symptoms that may indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, malabsorption can cause diarrhea and dehydration , which can be fatal. Seek immediate medical attention if you, or someone close to you, has any of these life-threatening symptoms, including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as fainting or unresponsiveness
  • Change in mental state or sudden change in behavior, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, and hallucinations
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Fast heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Hollow eyes

What Causes Malabsorption

Several conditions are believed to cause malabsorption, although the exact cause is unknown. Some of the causes of malabsorption include:

  • Biliary atresia (blockage of the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder)
  • Bowel resection (partial removal for disease)
  • Cancers, such as lymphoma or pancreatic cancer
  • Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
  • Certain medications, including tetracycline, diet medications, and some antacids
  • Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the intestine)
  • Food intolerances (difficulty digesting certain foods without food allergy symptoms), such as dairy or soy products
  • Liver disease (includes any type of liver problem, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure)
  • Parasitic infections
  • Gastrointestinal tract surgery that removes parts of the stomach or intestines
  • Whipple’s disease (disorder that prevents the absorption of nutrients by the intestines)
  • Bad diets

What are the risk factors for malabsorption

Some of the risk factors for malabsorption include:

  • Cancer
  • Food intolerances
  • History of stomach or intestinal surgery that has removed part of the stomach or intestines
  • Presence of gastrointestinal diseases that cause diarrhea or vomiting
  • Structural abnormalities in the digestive system

How Malabsorption Can Be Treated

Treatment for malabsorption begins with seeking medical attention. Your doctor will evaluate you or your child for signs and symptoms of malnutrition and will try to identify the cause. It may be that your diet does not include enough nutrient-rich foods or that there are digestive problems that prevent the absorption of nutrients.

Hospitalization may be required to provide IV fluids and nutrients. Treatment will depend on the specific cause of the malabsorption, such as antibiotics if it is caused by an infection.

Treatment for malabsorption

Treatments for this condition may be the following:

  • Hospitalization to replace fluids and nutrients
  • Treating the cause of malabsorption

What are its possible complications

If left untreated, complications from malabsorption can be serious and even life-threatening in some cases. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan specifically designed by you and your doctor. Complications of malabsorption include:

  • Anemia (low levels of red blood cells)
  • Developmental delays and lack of growth
  • Gallstones
  • Kidney stones
  • Malnutrition
  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Autoimmune diseases

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses. He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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