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Malabsorption

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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:

What you need to know

  • 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.

About malabsorption

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.

Product ratings for malabsorption

Science Ratings Nutritional Supplements Herbs
3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

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.

Medical options

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.

References:

1. Cotran RS, Kumar V, Robbins SL. Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease, 5th ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 1994, 796–806.

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