Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which the intestine can’t adequately absorb certain nutrients into the bloodstream. It can impede the absorption of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), or both.
Part 2 of 6: Causes
Causes of Malabsorption Syndrome
Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and most fluids are absorbed in the small intestine (small bowel). Malabsorption syndrome occurs when something prevents the bowel from absorbing important nutrients and fluids. The problem may be caused by inflammation, intrinsic disease, or injury to the lining of the intestine. Sometimes, the condition may be the result of the body’s failure to produce enzymes needed to digest certain foods or to adequately mix the food with the enzymes and acid produced by the stomach.
Factors that may affect the digestion of food and cause malabsorption syndrome include:
prolonged antibiotic use
other conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, chronic pancreatitis, or cystic fibrosis
lactase deficiency, or lactose intolerance, which is fairly common in people of African or Asian descent and happens when the body lacks the enzyme needed to digest lactose, a sugar present in milk
congenital (birth) defects, such as biliary atresia, which is when the bile ducts don’t develop normally and may become blocked and prevent the flow of bile from the liver
diseases of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas
damage to the intestine (from infection, inflammation, trauma, or surgery)
radiation therapy (which may injure the mucosal lining of the bowel)
There are some fairly uncommon disorders that result in malabsorption. One possibility is short bowel syndrome. This condition may be a birth defect or the result of surgery. The surface area of the bowel decreases, and this hinders the bowel’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Another disorder that may lead to malabsorption is tropical sprue. This condition is most common in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and India. Its symptoms may include anemia, diarrhea, sore tongue, and weight loss. The condition may be related to environmental factors, such as toxins in food, infection, or parasites.
An even more rare possibility is Whipple’s disease, which usually affects middle-aged men. The condition may be caused by a bacterial infection. A key symptom is crampy abdominal pain. Additional symptoms include:
darkening of skin pigment
Part 3 of 6: Symptoms
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Malabsorption Syndrome
Symptoms of malabsorption syndrome are caused by the passage of unabsorbed nutrients through the digestive tract. They will be different depending on the specific nutrient or nutrients that are not properly absorbed. Other symptoms are caused by a deficiency of that nutrient in the body:
If you have a fat deficiency, you may have light-colored, foul-smelling stools that are soft and bulky. Stools are difficult to flush and may float or stick to the sides of the toilet bowl.
If you have a protein deficiency, you may experience fluid retention (edema), dry hair, or hair loss.
If you have a sugar deficiency, you may have bloating, flatulence, or explosive diarrhea
If you have a vitamin deficiency, you may have anemia, malnutrition, low blood pressure, weight loss, and muscle wasting.
Children with malabsorption syndrome may avoid certain foods. They may also fail to grow properly. Their weight or rate of weight gain may be significantly below that of other children of a similar age and gender.
Part 4 of 6: Risk Factors
Risk factors for malabsorption include:
excessive alcohol consumption
a family history of cystic fibrosis or malabsorption
use of certain medications including laxatives or mineral oil
travel to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and India
Part 5 of 6: Diagnosis
Diagnosing Malabsorption Syndrome
A doctor may suspect malabsorption syndrome if the patient suffers chronic diarrhea, nutrient deficiencies, or has significant weight loss despite eating a healthy diet. Laboratory tests are used to confirm the diagnosis. These tests may include: