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.