Malabsorption is when the body has trouble absorbing certain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, or fats even though food is digested.
Malabsorption is associated with a number of diseases that affect the intestines or other areas of the gastrointestinal tract, such as:
- Lactose intolerance
- Celiac disease
- Intestinal parasites
- HIV/AIDS, cancer, or treatment for those conditions
- Whipple disease or other bacterial infections
- Crohn's disease
- Cystic fibrosis
Inadequate digestion due to:
- Bacterial overgrowth syndrome
- Gastric resection—removal of all or part of the stomach
- Inadequate function of the pancreas
- Excessive production of gastric acid
- Short bowel syndrome or previous bowel removal
- Liver disease
Factors that may increase your chance of malabsorption include:
- Medical conditions affecting the intestine, such as celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, or Crohn's disease
- Use of laxatives
- Excessive use of antibiotics
- Intestinal surgery
- Alcohol use disorder
- Travel to countries with high incidence of intestinal parasites
Malabsorption may cause:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal distention and bloating
- Bulky, foul-smelling stools
- Weakness and fatigue
- Swelling or fluid retention
- Muscle weakness
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids, waste products, and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Urine tests
- Hydrogen breath test
- Small bowel biopsy
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with x-rays.
Your pancreas may be tested. This can be done with a pancreatic function test.
In some people, the specific underlying condition must be treated in order to reverse the malabsorption. Other conditions cannot always be treated such as cystic fibrosis, short bowel, or pancreatic insufficiency.
Depending on the cause and severity of the malabsorption, you may need to make up for nutritional deficiencies by consuming additional nutrients through foods or supplements. A diet rich in vitamins and minerals along with increased quantities of fat, protein, or carbohydrate may be required. Nutrient supplementation may include folate, iron, and vitamin B12. In some cases, nutrients may be given by IV.
Conditions that cause malabsorption need to be recognized and managed. Work with your doctor and follow the recommended treatment plan to decrease malabsorption complications.
American College of Gastroenterology
NORD—National Organization for Rare Disorders
Abdullah M, Firmansyah MA. Clinical approach and management of chronic diarrhea. Acta Med Indones. 2013;45(2):157-165.
Bacterial overgrowth syndrome. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal_disorders/malabsorption_syndromes/bacterial_overgrowth_syndrome.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed June 19, 2014.
Chronic diarrhea. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated June 16, 2014. Accessed June 19, 2014.
Diarrheal diseases—acute and chronic. American College of Gastroenterology website. Available at: http://patients.gi.org/topics/diarrhea-acute-and-chronic. Updated December 2012. Accessed July 19, 2014.
Overview of malabsorption. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal_disorders/malabsorption_syndromes/overview_of_malabsorption.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed July 19, 2014.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.