A Guide to Malabsorption (Syndromes): Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Was this helpful?
135

Malabsorption occurs when nutrients are not properly absorbed from food during the digestive process. This can result in a deficiency of vitamins, proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, and other nutrients. Malabsorption syndrome is a serious condition that can cause diarrhea or loose stools. Persistent diarrhea can result in dehydration, a potentially life threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for symptoms of dehydration, including sunken eyes, rapid heart rate, any change in the level of consciousness or alertness, and loss of skin elasticity.

This article will explain the symptoms, causes, and treatment options associated with malabsorption syndrome.

What causes a malabsorption syndrome?

a woman with malabsorption syndrome is lying on a bed with her hands on her stomach
Charday Penn/Getty Images

Typically, the small intestine extracts and absorbs nutrients from food during digestion. The body then carries these nutrients through the bloodstream and into the tissues, muscles, and organs to support their functions.

In the case of malabsorption syndrome, there is a breakdown in this process in the intestine such that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients but rather excretes them through the stool.

Many conditions are thought to cause malabsorption.

Common causes of malabsorption

Some of the causes of malabsorption include:

  • 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 may cause intestinal damage)
  • Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the intestine)
  • food intolerances (difficulty digesting certain foods without symptoms of a food allergy), such as dairy or soy products
  • certain types of liver disease
  • infections, including parasitic or bacterial infections
  • surgery of the gastrointestinal tract that bypasses or removes parts of the stomach or intestines
  • Whipple disease (a disorder that prevents nutrient absorption by the intestines)

What are the symptoms of malabsorption?

Malabsorption affects not only the gastrointestinal system but also the growth and development of your child. The depletion of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients can increase susceptibility to illnesses and disease, as well.

Malabsorption may be temporary, for example, occurring in so-called stomach flu, when vomiting or diarrhea may prevent the efficient absorption of nutrients. This type of malabsorption goes away when the underlying disease resolves.

However, chronic (long lasting) cases of malabsorption are a cause for concern, and a healthcare professional should immediately evaluate them.

Gastrointestinal symptoms of malabsorption

The following gastrointestinal symptoms may occur in malabsorption:

Other symptoms of malabsorption

Malabsorption may cause symptoms throughout the body, including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

If you have questions or concerns about malabsorption symptoms, contact your doctor and discuss when to seek medical attention. Serious symptoms warrant prompt medical attention, including:

  • a change in the level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • a change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargyhallucinations, and delusions
  • the loss of skin elasticity
  • a rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • sunken eyes

Learn about loss of skin turgor, a sign of dehydration.

How is malabsorption treated?

Treatment for malabsorption begins with seeking medical care from your healthcare professional. They will evaluate you for signs and symptoms of malabsorption and attempt to identify the cause.

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

However, treatment could be as conservative as dietary changes such as food avoidance or supplementation.

How is malabsorption prevented?

If you have a chronic condition such as celiac disease or cystic fibrosis, following a treatment plan can help you prevent malabsorption syndrome. You can try to ensure you are receiving the proper nutrients and hydration your body needs to prevent any complications of the condition.

Talk with your doctor about how to prevent malabsorption.

Learn about what to do for dehydration.

Frequently asked questions

The following are some frequently asked questions about malabsorption syndrome.

What is the main cause of malabsorption?

Causes of malabsorption syndrome can include:

What does malabsorption poop look like?

According to a 2021 article, people with malabsorption syndrome may notice floating pale, greasy stools. Some people have reported seeing oil droplets in the toilet.

Malabsorption syndrome can change the stool in the following ways:

  • color
  • bulk
  • consistency
  • smell
  • bowel habits and frequency

Can a blood test detect malabsorption?

According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, doctors may use blood tests to help in the diagnosis of malabsorption. They may check for levels of:

  • carotene
  • vitamin B12
  • folate
  • iron
  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • albumin
  • protein

However, because other conditions can cause altered levels of these substances, a blood test alone is not specific in diagnosing malabsorption.

What happens if malabsorption goes untreated?

Left untreated, the complications of malabsorption can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your healthcare professional design.

Complications of malabsorption include:

  • anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • developmental delays and failure to thrive
  • malnutrition
  • osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
  • vitamin deficiencies

Summary

Symptoms associated with malabsorption syndrome can include vomitingnausea, bloating, chronic diarrhea, muscle wasting, and weight loss. Malabsorption occurring in children can limit their growth. Malabsorption can also lead to other illnesses due to a lack of nutrition.

Seek prompt medical care if you or a child are receiving treatment for malabsorption, but symptoms recur or persist.

Was this helpful?
135
Medical Reviewer: Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 30
View All Digestive Health Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.