Your small intestine does most of the digesting of the foods you eat. If you have a malabsorption syndrome, your small intestine cannot absorb nutrients from foods.
Causes of malabsorption syndromes include
- Celiac disease
- Lactose intolerance
- Short bowel syndrome. This happens after surgery to remove half or more of the small intestine. You might need the surgery if you have a problem with the small intestine from a disease, injury, or birth defect.
- Whipple disease, a rare bacterial infection
- Genetic diseases
- Certain medicines
Symptoms of different malabsorption syndromes can vary. They often include chronic diarrhea, abnormal stools, weight loss, and gas. Your doctor may use lab, imaging, or other tests to make a diagnosis.
Treatment of malabsorption syndromes depends on the cause.
Prevention depends on the condition causing malabsorption.
Many diseases can cause malabsorption. Most often, malabsorption involves problems absorbing certain sugars, fats, proteins, or vitamins. It can also involve an overall problem with absorbing food.
Some of the causes of malabsorption include:
- AIDS and HIV
- Biliary atresia
- Celiac disease
- Certain medications
- Certain types of cancer (lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, gastrinomas)
- Certain types of surgery (gastrectomy with gastrojejunostomy, surgical treatments for obesity, partial or complete removal of the ileum)
- Chronic liver disease
- Cow’s milk protein intolerance
- Crohn’s disease
- Damage from radiation treatments
- Parasite infection, including Giardia lamblia
- Soy milk protein intolerance
- Whipple’s disease
Vitamin B12 malabsorption may be due to:
- Pernicious anemia
- Bowel resection
- Tapeworm infection (such as Diphyllobothrium latum)
- Bloating, cramping, and gas
- Bulky stools
- Chronic diarrhea (may not occur with vitamin malabsorption)
- Failure to thrive
- Fatty stools (steatorrhea)
- Muscle wasting
- Weight loss
Malabsorption can affect growth and development. It also can lead to some illnesses.
Your doctor or nurse will do an exam.
Tests that may be done include:
- Blood and urine tests
- CT scan of the abdomen
- Hydrogen breath test
- Schilling test for vitamin B12 deficiency
- Secretin stimulation test
- Small bowel biopsy
- Stool culture or culture of small intestine aspirate
- Stool fat testing
- X-rays of the small bowel or other imaging tests
You may need to take extra vitamins and nutrients.
The outlook depends on what is causing the malabsorption.