The main role of the small intestine is to absorb and digest nutrients from the food you eat. Proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, electrolytes, iron, and other macro and micronutrients are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. 

When the small intestine doesn’t properly absorb nutrients, it is known as malabsorption. Malabsorption is caused by a variety of chronic diseases, disorders, and infections. These conditions have many different causes and result in varying severity of symptoms. If you experience any symptoms of malabsorption, be sure to contact a medical professional immediately.

Common Causes of Malabsorption 

  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Celiac Disease
  • Lactose Intolerance
  • Lactase Deficiency
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Chronic Pancreatitis
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Gallbladder or Liver Diseases
  • Damage from surgery or trauma
  • Bacterial overgrowth
  • Medication-induced conditions
  • Rare birth defects (like Short Bowel Syndrome)

Risk Factors of Malabsorption

  • A family history of cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, IBD, or other conditions related to malabsorption. 
  • Recent abdominal surgery
  • Using large amounts of drugs, such as laxatives or certain antibiotics
  • Possibly being exposed to a parasite or bacterial infection through travel or certain foods
  • Drinking excessive alcohol

Symptoms of Malabsorption

  • Abdominal pain, like cramps or a 
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Greasy or irregular stools
  • Gas 

If left untreated, long-term symptoms of malabsorption can include weight loss, loss of muscle mass, weakened bones/osteoporosis, a sore tongue, and iron deficiency anemia. 

Diagnosing Malabsorption

Everyone has the occasional nausea or bloating, but if you regularly experience any of these symptoms or notice a marked change in abdominal function, seek medical attention. Malabsorption is often a symptom of a more severe or chronic condition that warrants immediate treatment. 

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will examine your symptoms, as well as any existing conditions or family history you may have. Then, they will use medical tests to further diagnose your condition. These may include:

  • Blood Tests – Blood tests can be used to measure levels of minerals and vitamins in your blood, such as iron, to determine if you have a malabsorption-related deficiency. A lack of certain nutrients can indicate malnutrition.
  • Breath Tests – A breath test may be used to diagnose conditions such as lactose intolerance. High levels of hydrogen in your breath are associated with a lactose intolerance.
  • Stool Tests – Stool tests are highly effective at diagnosing malabsorption by examining factors such as level of fat in the stool. Low fat in the stool can indicate malabsorption.
  • CT Scan – A CT Scan can be used to identify diseases such as Crohn’s Disease. 
  • X-Ray – An X-Ray may be used to look at the structure of your intestines to determine if there are genetic abnormalities or birth defects.
  • Xylose absorption test – This test can be used to determine the efficacy of your intestinal mucosa and ultimately how well you absorb nutrients. 
  • Endoscopy – An endoscopy may be used to take a biopsy of cells in your small intestine. This noninvasive procedure requires the insertion of a tube through your mouth and into your stomach. 

Treating Malabsorption

Treating malabsorption requires addressing its underlying cause, which varies from condition to condition. For example, someone suffering from malabsorption due to a gluten allergy (Celiac Disease) will be recommended to make dietary changes, whereas someone suffering from malabsorption due to intestinal parasites will need a different form of treatment. Regardless of the cause, you may be prescribed medications to curb symptoms like diarrhea. You may be recommended a certain diet or supplements to regain necessary vitamins and nutrients. 

Prolonged malabsorption can affect your health and quality of life. If you experience any symptoms of malabsorption, contact the experienced team of doctors and medical professionals at Gastroenterology Health Partners.