Intestinal Malabsorption | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

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Intestinal Malabsorption

Overview and Facts about Intestinal Malabsorption

Intestinal malabsorption is a digestive health condition in which the gastrointestinal tract, usually the small intestine, is unable to absorb one or more of the different nutrients we need in our diet. If intestinal malabsorption continues for a prolonged period, a person can become deficient in iron, proteins, vitamins and minerals. This ultimately leads to malnutrition.

Symptoms and Signs of Intestinal Malabsorption

The most common signs and symptoms of intestinal malabsorption include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Weight loss

People with intestinal malabsorption tend to have light-colored, foul-smelling stool that can be difficult to flush.

Causes and Risk Factors of Intestinal Malabsorption

In most cases, intestinal malabsorption occurs due to damage in the small intestine, where the majority of nutrient absorption takes place. This can occur after infection, inflammation, trauma or surgery.

Other factors that can lead to this digestive health condition include:

  • Abnormally developed bile ducts, which are present at birth
  • Digestive health conditions like celiac diseaseCrohn’s disease, or chronic pancreatitis
  • Diseases of the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Medications that harm the lining of the intestine as a side effect
  • Overuse of antibiotics
  • Parasitic diseases
  • Radiation therapy

In some cases, your digestive system is simply not able to produce the enzymes needed for proper digestion.

Tests and Diagnosis of Intestinal Malabsorption

To diagnose intestinal malabsorption, your doctor will likely perform an endoscopy to get a tissue sample from the digestive system for further examination, looking primarily for abnormal cells.

Additionally, your doctor may recommend:

  • A breath test, which can be used to test for lactose intolerance.
  • Blood tests, which can be used to measure the level of specific nutrients in your blood, such as vitamin B-12, vitamin D, folate, iron, calcium, carotene, phosphorus, albumin, and protein. If you have these at normal levels, malabsorption is not the issue.
  • Stool samples, which can help determine how much fat is passing through your digestive system. Fat is almost always present in the stool of a person with intestinal malabsorption.

Treatment and Care for Intestinal Malabsorption

Determining the right treatment for intestinal malabsorption depends on determining what the cause is, so a correct diagnosis is crucial. Some of the potential treatment options can include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Dietary changes
  • Intestinal hormones
  • Medications for diarrhea
  • Medications to reduce acid
  • Vitamins and minerals