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What is Malabsorption?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Malabsorption refers to an inability to absorb nutrients and vitamins from food. Many different conditions can affect digestion and absorption, including parasites, anatomical defects, irritable bowel syndrome, and pancreas and liver disorders. Without proper levels of certain nutrients, a person may experience serious gastrointestinal problems and weight loss. A doctor usually tries to determine the underlying cause before initiating treatment. In most cases, the condition can be overcome with a structured diet plan, nutritional supplements, and medical care for the causal factors.

Most instances of malabsorption involve a deficiency in one or a few key nutrients rather than a complete lack of nourishment. A person may be unable to digest certain sugars, vitamins, or proteins for any of a number of different reasons. Many people have inherited disorders, such as lactose or fructose intolerance, that affect the way their bodies metabolize important dietary compounds. Conditions such as pancreatitis, Crohn's disease, and hepatitis can all affect the way certain nutrients are absorbed and used in the body. Additionally, tapeworms and parasites can rob an otherwise healthy person of essential minerals.

The most common physical symptom is frequent bouts of diarrhea. When the body is unable to process nutrients, most of the food and liquid consumed is quickly expelled as waste. Light-colored stools that float in the toilet are signs that fat is not being digested properly. Abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and weight loss are common with chronic protein and vitamin deficiencies.

A doctor can usually diagnose malabsorption by carefully reviewing a patient's symptoms and medical history. Blood, stool, and urine samples are taken and analyzed to check for abnormal levels of specific vitamins and proteins. Lab tests may also reveal the presence of a parasite or another infectious agent that might be causing symptoms. Diagnostic imaging tests such as ultrasounds and computerized tomography scans are used to inspect the intestines and look for signs of physical abnormalities. After diagnosing malabsorption and identifying an underlying cause, the doctor can determine the best way to treat the condition.

Patients who suffer from malabsorption usually need to meet with clinical nutritionists to learn about specific dietary recommendations. A lactose intolerant person, for example, is told about lactose-free dairy alternatives that still supply calcium and vitamin D. Many patients are given oral supplements to make up for a lack of certain vitamins or minerals in their systems. In addition, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, or immunosuppressive medications may be prescribed to manage specific health conditions. Most people who follow their doctors' orders are able to recover within a few weeks.

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Discussion Comments
By turquoise — On Aug 15, 2012

Last year, I had to take my dog to the vet because she was losing weight despite eating well. I didn't think she was sick because usually she doesn't eat when she's sick. On the contrary, she had been eating a lot more than usual and was still looking really thin.

The vet put her on malabsorption treatment which was basically vitamins. He also decided to put her on a course of anti-parasitic medication in case that was the problem. After she went through the whole course of the medication, she started gaining weight immediately and stopped eating so much! I guess parasites was the cause of her malabsorption.

By fBoyle — On Aug 15, 2012

My nephew has just been diagnosed with fructose malabsorption and he's only six!

My sister is upset about it but she's also glad that they finally know what's wrong. He has always had a sensitive stomach and picky eating habits. But we could never understand why he would have nausea and diarrhea after eating some foods. It turns out he can't tolerate fructose and it was fructose rich foods that was causing problems.

Now my sister has lists of foods he can have and can't have. Most of it is fruits. It's not very limiting in terms of his nutrition because he's still allowed everything else and even a few low fructose fruits. The only concern my sister has right now is if he'll be able to get enough fiber on this diet.

Anyone else here have fructose malabsorption?

By burcinc — On Aug 14, 2012
I had a mild malabsorption problem when I was on acid reflux medication. I didn't realize this in the beginning, but apparently, medications that control stomach acid can decrease absorption of vitamins and minerals. It's not a major problem when used for a short period of time. But I used it daily for over a year for acid reflux.

I wouldn't have know about it if I hadn't started getting mouth sores which is a common malabsorption symptom. Whenever I got a sore, I would take a break from the medicine for a few days and take extra multivitamins. It made the sores go away.

Thankfully, the underlying problem for my reflux was treated and I was taken off the drug. Otherwise I would have continued to have malabsorption.

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