Regional Gastrointestinal Consultants

Malabsorption Syndrome

Malabsorption Syndrome

Malabsorption Syndrome


Malabsorption means the failure of the Gastrointestinal (GI) tract, usually the small intestine, to absorb one or more substances from the diet. This is generally the result of some defect or damage to the mucosal lining of the small intestine, where most of our nutrient absorption takes place. The most common symptoms of malabsorption syndrome are diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, cramping and weight loss. Over time, one may become deficient in iron, proteins, various vitamins and minerals and this can lead to degrees of malnutrition and a variety of anemias.

The most common anemias that may occur are vitamin B12, folate, and iron deficiency. Vitamin K malabsorption causes the blood to thin out and could result in excess bleeding. Protein depletion can lead to impaired bone formation and osteoporosis, and calcium deficiency leads to weakening and demineralization of the bone, causing a condition called osteomalacia. Impaired absorption of vitamin A could result in poor vision and night blindness as well as dermatitis. Malabsorption of protein, fat and carbohydrate leads to loss of calories, generalized malnutrition and diarrhea.

Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which nutrients from food are not absorbed properly in the small intestine.

  • Certain disorders, infections, and surgical procedures can cause malabsorption.
  • Malabsorption causes diarrhea, weight loss, and bulky, extremely foul-smelling stools.
  • The diagnosis is based on typical symptoms along with stool tests and sometimes a biopsy of the lining of the small intestine.
  • The treatment depends on the cause.

Normally, foods are digested and nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals) are absorbed into the bloodstream mainly in the small intestine. Malabsorption may occur if a disorder interferes with the digestion of food, or interferes with the absorption of nutrients.

Digestion of food can be affected by disorders that prevent adequate mixing of food with digestive enzymes and acid from the stomach. Inadequate mixing may occur in a person who has had part of the stomach surgically removed. In some disorders, the body produces inadequate amounts or types of digestive enzymes, which are necessary for the breakdown of food. For example, a common cause of malabsorption is insufficient production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas, which occurs with some pancreatic diseases, or by the small intestine, which occurs in lactase deficiency (see Lactose Intolerance). Decreased production of bile, too much acid in the stomach, or too many of the wrong kinds of bacteria growing in the small intestine (see Bacterial Overgrowth Syndrome) may also interfere with digestion.

Absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream can be affected by disorders that injure the lining of the small intestine. The normal lining consists of small projections called villi and even smaller projections called microvilli, which create an enormous surface area for absorption.

Surgical removal of a large section of the small intestine substantially reduces the surface area for absorption (see Short Bowel Syndrome). Also, Infections (bacterial, viral, or parasitic); drugs such as cholestyramine, tetracycline, colchicine, and alcohol; and disorders such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease all may injure the intestinal lining. Disorders that affect the flow of lymphatic fluid from the bowel into the bloodstream (the path that fats must take to enter the bloodstream), such as malformation of intestinal lymph vessels (see Intestinal Lymphangiectasia), blockage of lymph vessels due to lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system), or impaired entry of lymph fluid into the bloodstream due to some heart disorders, also reduce absorption.


Symptoms of malabsorption are caused by the increased passage of unabsorbed nutrients through the digestive tract or by the nutritional deficiencies that result from inadequate absorption.

Chronic diarrhea is the most common symptom of malabsorption. When there is inadequate absorption of fats in the digestive tract, stool is light-colored, soft, bulky, greasy, and unusually foul-smelling (such stool is called steatorrhea). The stool may float or stick to the side of the toilet bowl and may be difficult to flush away. The inadequate absorption of certain sugars can cause explosive diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and flatulence.

Malabsorption can cause deficiencies of all nutrients or selective deficiencies of proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins, or minerals. People with malabsorption usually lose weight or have difficulty maintaining their weight despite adequate consumption of food. Women may stop menstruating. The symptoms vary depending on the specific deficiencies. For example, a protein deficiency can cause swelling and accumulation of fluid (edema) anywhere throughout the body, dry skin, and hair loss. Anemia (caused by vitamin or iron deficiency) may cause fatigue and weakness.

The small intestine, which is just beyond the stomach, is the site of most of our absorption, and a variety of conditions in that location can produce malabsorption syndrome.

Celiac disease (Celiac sprue, gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is a condition where the mucosal lining of the small intestine is damaged by ingestion of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats but not in corn or rice. The mechanisms and reason for this reaction is unknown, but it is thought to be genetic in nature and likely an autoimmune condition. This conditionis not considered an allergy. Maintaining a gluten-free diet restores the damaged mucosal lining to normal and allows one to absorb normally leading to a normal life. On occasion, patients may fail to respond to a gluten-free diet and could have refractory sprue or intestinal lymphoma. Prednisone (steroids) may be helpful in up to 50 percent of patients with refractory disease.

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory or ulcerating condition of the GI tract that may affect the small intestine, thus resulting in malabsorption syndrome. If treated properly, absorption can be restored.

Tropical sprue is a bacterial mediated disease causing a similar picture to that of celiac disease and should be suspected in anyone presenting with malabsorption that has visited the tropics. Treatment consists of antibiotics, often Tetracycline, for up to 6 months.

Whipple’s disease is a systemic bacterial illness usually affecting middle age men. Symptoms include diarrhea, arthritis, fever, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes and skin pigmentation. It is diagnosed by taking a small bowel biopsy through an endoscope, and the treatment is antibiotics for one year or longer.

Lactase deficiency can result in malabsorption, and it occurs in 15 percent of Caucasians, 50 percent of blacks, and nearly 90 percent of Asians. Often, however, one can have a partial lactase deficiency that causes symptoms but not full-blown malabsorption. Treatment is to avoid lactose-containing dairy products (milk, ice cream, and cheese). Over-the-counter lactose enzymes are also available to aid in digestion.

Parasitic diseases can cause selective malabsorption of lactose of fat. Giardia Lamblia is the most common of these parasites and is contracted by ingesting un-purified water such as from streams, lakes, and ponds or in foreign countries. It is also passed along through day care centers, swimming pools or person-to-person. It is treated with antibiotics.

Other causes of malabsorption can be due to past intestinal surgeries, bacterial overgrowth, AIDS, radiation to the abdomen, diabetes, lymphoma or motility disorders. In addition to small bowel disease, malabsorption can occur in those who have had portions of their stomachs removed surgically. The pancreas produces enzymes that help to digest food, so if a condition exists where enzymes are not being produced it can result in maldigestion or malabsorption. This could include chronic alcoholic pancreatitis, trauma, cystic fibrosis, tumors or post-surgical states.


The diagnosis of malabsorption consists of a number of different tests to look for the various causes. Generally, an endoscopy is performed under mild sedation, at which time a biopsy can be obtained for analysis under the microscope. In addition, blood tests are helpful to determine if a malnourished condition exists. Stool collections and cultures are useful, as well as certain breath and hormone tests.

The treatment of malabsorption syndromes depends on the cause, so an accurate diagnosis is important. Some of the treatments employed, however may include diet changes, antibiotics, antidiarrheal agents, intestinal hormones, various vitamins, minerals and medium chain triglycerides, acid reducing medicines and anti-inflammatory medications or steroids.


We recommend that people experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms do not attempt self-treatment. With many medications being available over the counter, and numerous do-it-yourself online unqualified remedy recommendation, it is natural to consider treating yourself but we highly recommend against this.

If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms you may have a more significant issue than you would expect from the sometimes muted or infrequent symptom you may be experiencing. It is important to keep in mind that is you are having gastrointestinal symptoms or concerns it is best see a doctor to have those symptoms diagnosed and any conditions treated. Also, it is worth noting, that if health conditions do exist, the earlier they are diagnosed and treated, the greater the probability will be to successfully eliminate or manage a present condition, in fact successful outcomes will increase significantly with early detection.

If you have gastrointestinal concerns or are experiencing any gastrointestinal symptoms, please contact us promptly to schedule a consultation with a physician.


The information on this website is to provide general information. In no way, does any of the information provided reflect definitive medical advice and self-diagnoses should not be made based on information obtained online. It is important to consult a best in class physician regarding ANY and ALL symptoms or signs as it may a sign of a serious illness or condition. A thorough consultation and examination should ALWAYS be performed for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Be sure to call a physician or call our office today at (215) 321-4700 to schedule a consultation.