A Guide to Malabsorption (Syndromes): Causes, Symptoms, Treatments
This article will explain the symptoms, causes, and treatment options associated with malabsorption syndrome.
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)
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:
- developmental delays
- dry skin
- easy bleeding or bruising
- frequent infections
- growth impairment
- muscle weakness
- unexplained weight loss
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, lethargy, hallucinations, and delusions
- the loss of skin elasticity
- a rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
- sunken eyes
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.
However, treatment could be as conservative as dietary changes such as food avoidance or supplementation.
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.
The following are some frequently asked questions about malabsorption syndrome.
What is the main cause of malabsorption?
Causes of malabsorption syndrome can include:
- celiac disease
- lactose intolerance
- short bowel syndrome
- genetic diseases
- some medications, including some antibiotics
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:
- 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:
- vitamin B12
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
- osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
- vitamin deficiencies
Symptoms associated with malabsorption syndrome can include vomiting, nausea, 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.