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Malabsorption Syndrome

Doctor holding tablet with intestine image

What is malabsorption syndrome?

Malabsorption syndrome is a term used to describe several different disorders that prevent your small intestine from absorbing typical amounts of some nutrients and fluids.

What causes malabsorption syndrome?

Our small intestine absorbs nutrients from the food we eat into our bloodstream. Depending on the cause, the small intestine of people with malabsorption syndrome may have trouble absorbing proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals. Any condition that causes a disruption in the digestive process may cause malabsorption syndrome.

Conditions or factors that may lead to malabsorption syndrome include:

  • Birth defects, such as biliary atresia, when the bile ducts don’t develop normally
  • Cancer
  • Celiac disease
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Infections, such as giardia, helminthiasis, tropical sprue
  • Lack of digestive enzymes
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Liver disease
  • Lymphatic obstruction, such as that due to Tuberculosis
  • Mastocytosis
  • Medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure or other cardiovascular disorders
  • Medications, such as cholestyramine, colchicine, laxatives, neomycin
  • Mucosal abnormalities, such as amyloidosis or Crohn’s disease
  • Passage of food through the stomach and intestine is faster than usual
  • Presence of bacteria or other microbes
  • Prolonged use of antibiotics
  • Radiation therapy
  • Reduced bile salt concentration
  • Short bowel syndrome
  • Stomach or bowel surgery which leads to impaired digestion or an inadequate absorptive surface
  • Trauma or inflammation of the intestine
  • Whipple’s disease.

What are the symptoms of malabsorption syndrome?

Symptoms can vary depending on what nutrients are not being absorbed and what role they play in our bodies. Symptoms may include:

  • Light-colored, foul-smelling stools that are soft and bulky, tend to float or stick to the sides of the toilet bowl, and are difficult to flush (fat malabsorption)
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Dry hair, hair loss, or edema (protein malabsorption)
  • Bloating, gas, or explosive diarrhea (sugar malabsorption)
  • Anemia, weight loss, muscle wasting, low blood pressure (vitamin malabsorption)
  • Lack of menstruation in women
  • Poor growth rate in children.

How is malabsorption syndrome diagnosed?

See your doctor if you have chronic diarrhea or have lost weight for no reason. Children should be taken to a doctor for a check-up if they appear to be growing more slowly than usual or don’t reach other milestones.

Your doctor will take a history and may perform blood tests, stool tests, breath tests (for lactose intolerance), imaging studies or other diagnostic tests before they make their diagnosis.

How is malabsorption syndrome treated?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause and symptoms and may include:

  • Antidiarrheal medications, such as loperamide
  • Electrolytes or other hydration therapies to correct dehydration
  • Enzyme supplements
  • Lactase enzyme tablets for lactose intolerance
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Advice and a nutrition plan from a dietician.