Over one hundred health conditions can contribute to the
body’s inability to absorb food nutrients. According to research or other evidence, the
following self-care steps may help you remedy malabsorption:
- Get a checkup
- Visit your healthcare provider to find out whether your
malabsorption is the result of a treatable medical problem
These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace
the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full malabsorption article for
more in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and
lifestyle changes that may be helpful.
Malabsorption is a broad term used to describe the inability to absorb nutrients through
the gut lining into the bloodstream.
Malabsorption is not a disease by itself, but rather the result of some other condition
that is present. The small intestine (also called the small bowel) is typically involved in
malabsorption, since the majority of nutrients are absorbed there. Malabsorption may affect
one or more of the many nutrients present in the diet, including protein, fat, carbohydrate,
vitamins, and minerals.
There are over 100 different conditions that can lead to problems in absorbing food, most
of which are rare. The degree of malabsorption depends on the type of underlying condition and
the extent to which it has affected the gut. Some of the more common malabsorption syndromes
are due to bacterial or parasitic infections,
Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, liver disease (including cirrhosis, hepatitis, and gallstones), cystic fibrosis, lactose intolerance, chronic pancreatitis, specific
medications that affect the intestines, or surgery of the stomach or bowels. The four
conditions that most often lead to malabsorption in the United States are lactose intolerance, celiac disease, Crohn’s
disease, and chronic pancreatitis.1
Malabsorption may also occur when certain minerals present in the digestive tract in large
amounts prevent adequate absorption of other minerals that are present in relatively small
amounts. Minerals that may have this type of interaction include calcium,
copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
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What are the symptoms?
People with malabsorption may have symptoms of frequent, loose, watery stools; pale,
foul-smelling, bulky stools; abdominal pain, gas, and bloating; weight loss; fatigue; canker sores; muscle cramps; delayed growth or short
stature; bone and joint pain; seizures; painful skin rash; night blindness; easy bruising; and infertility. In addition to physical
symptoms, there may be emotional disturbances, including feelings of anxiety and depression.
Immunosuppressive drugs such as mercaptopurine (Purinethol) and anti-inflammatory
glucocorticoids such as prednisone (Deltasone,
Orasone) are sometimes used as components of prescription drug therapy.
Treatments are directed at any underlying medical condition, including lactose intolerance,
Crohn's disease, celiac disease, tropical
sprue, Whipple’s disease, pancreatic
insufficiency, and short bowel syndrome. People with severe damage to the absorptive
surface of their intestines might be prescribed intravenous nutritional supplements.
Dietary changes that may be helpful
Some popular health regimens claim that certain dietary practices, such as eating only raw
food or avoiding certain food combinations, will prevent malabsorption of nutrients. There is
no evidence to support these claims.
1. Cotran RS, Kumar V, Robbins SL. Robbins Pathologic Basis of
Disease, 5th ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 1994, 796–806.