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Malabsorption Syndrome

Malabsorption Syndromes

Malabsorption is defined as a gastrointestinal alteration which seriously affects the ability to digest, absorb and transport nutrients across the gastrointestinal wall.


The main effects of the presence of unabsorbed substances in the gastrointestinal tract are indicated as follows:

  • Diarrhea. Diarrhea appears as the most common malabsorption symptom [4][5][6][7][8]. It is the result of the presence of unabsorbed fluids in the gastrointestinal tract, that gives the stools a watery appearance. Diarrhea is worsened by the bacterial action, which produces hydroxyl fatty acids and increases the net fluid secretion. 
  • Steatorrhea. The unabsorbed fats are then secreted giving the stools a classical fatty appearance, in a condition known as steatorrhea. Usually, the stools are pale, bulky, greasy, and foul-smelling. 
  • Abdominal bloating and flatulence. The unabsorbed foods is digested through fermentation by the bacterial flora in the gastrointestinal tract, producing gaseous products such as hydrogen and methane which cause flatulence. This might also result in abdominal distention and cramps
  • Weight loss. Weight loss is very common, although it can frequently be concealed by food consumption increase. 
  • Nutritional deficiencies. Most common are the severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which appear especially in advanced cases of malabsorption. The related symptoms depend on the specific nutrient concerned. For example, iron deficiency might cause anemia, vitamin D deficiency might cause bone disorders, while calcium deficiency might cause hyperparathyroidism. In any case, the patient finds him/herself in a general status of weakness, where bone pain and fractures can also be observed. Other possible symptoms due to nutrient deficiencies include motor weakness (pantothenic acid), peripheral neuropathy (thiamine), a sense of loss (cobalamin), night blindness (vitamin A), seizure (biotin), and bleeding (vitamin K). Very severe might also be electrolyte deficiencies, like hypocalcemia and hypomagnesaemia, which frequently lead to tetany. Anemia also results from vitamin B-12 deficiency, and for this reason, it can be either microcytic (due to iron deficiency) and macrocytic (due to vitamin B-12 deficiency) [9].
Easy Bruising
  • The individual should also be alert for signs of nutrient, vitamin, and mineral depletion, including nausea or vomiting; fissures at corner of mouth; fatigue or weakness; dry, thinning hair; easy bruising; tingling in fingers or toes; and numbness or[encyclopedia.com]
  • Symptoms of Malabsorption Diarrhea Stools that float and are bulky, greasy and unusually malodorous Excessive gas Abdominal discomfort or cramps, especially after eating Fatigue Weight loss or emaciation Night blindness (vitamin A malabsorption) Easy[healthcommunities.com]
  • bruising, bleeding gums Numbness and tingling in feet and hands Paleness Muscle or bone pain The following are some complications that can develop over time as a result of chronic malabsorption: Anemia Delayed growth and development in children Difficulty[labtestsonline.org]
Weight Loss
  • The most common signs included weight loss in all 19 patients, with a median weight loss of 30 pounds (range, 2 to 134 pounds) and hypotension or orthostatic changes in 10 patients (53%). The median time from symptom onset to diagnosis was 7 months.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • The most common symptoms of malabsorption syndrome are diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, cramping and weight loss.[web.archive.org]
  • We describe a 39-year-old woman with an 8-month history of abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. Clinical and laboratory evaluation indicated the presence of a malabsorption syndrome.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Home British & World English malabsorption syndrome malabsorption syndrome noun Medicine A syndrome characterized by chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, anorexia, abdominal discomfort, and often other signs caused by specific nutrient deficiencies, associated[en.oxforddictionaries.com]
  • 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.[medlineplus.gov]
  • Abstract To evaluate the dual-isotope Schilling test for the diagnosis of pernicious anemia or malabsorption syndrome, 65 studies were selected for clinical correlation.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Herein, we describe a 14-year-old girl who presented with anemia, failure to thrive, osteoporosis, zinc, and vitamin deficiency. She was diagnosed as localized mesenteric mixed type of Castleman disease.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • 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.[web.archive.org]
  • The classical symptoms of this condition include diarrhea, steatorrhea, weight loss, and anemia.[symptoma.com]
  • Patients with celiac disease were younger (p   0.001), more often had anemia, (p   0.001), scalloping of folds (p   0.001), moderate (p   0.02) or severe (p   0.001) villous atrophy, higher grade of intraepithelial lymphocytic infiltration (p   0.001)[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Whipple Disease
  • Whipples disease is a systemic bacterial illness usually affecting middle age men and presents diarrhea, arthritis, fever, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes and skin pigmentation.[web.archive.org]
  • Major advances on celiac disease, Whipple's disease, giardiasis, tropical sprue, malabsorption of oligo- and disaccharides, vitamin B12 and bile salts are discussed. New aspects on diagnostic procedures for malabsorption are also presented.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • disease, a rare bacterial infection genetic diseases certain medicines treatment of malabsorption syndromes depends on the cause Applies To Malabsorption syndrome NOS ICD-9-CM Volume 2 Index entries containing back-references to 579.9 :[icd9data.com]
  • disease, a rare bacterial infection genetic diseases certain medicines treatment of malabsorption syndromes depends on the cause.[icd9data.com]
  • Topics under Malabsorption Syndrome Short Bowel Syndrome (8 drugs) Whipple's Disease (0 drugs) Further information Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.[drugs.com]
  • It is characterized by inflammation of the small intestine, loss of microvilli structure, failed intestinal absorption, and malnutrition. A syndrome resulting from the inadequate absorption of nutrients in the small intestine.[icd9data.com]
  • Malabsorption of protein, fat and carbohydrate leads to loss of calories, generalized malnutrition and diarrhea.[web.archive.org]
  • These results suggest that elevated levels of serum PSTI represent a state of malnutrition due to impaired intestinal absorption.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea General term for a group of malnutrition syndromes caused by failure of normal intestinal absorption of nutrients Impaired absorption of nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract Malabsorption: decreased[icd9data.com]
  • The outcome is malnutrition. Malnutrition may also be caused by inadequate diet with or without malabsorption. See also the separate Malnutrition article.[patient.info]
  • We ask about general symptoms (anxious mood, depressed mood, fatigue, pain, and stress) regardless of condition. Last updated: May 12, 2019[patientslikeme.com]
  • General symptoms of malabsorption can include diarrhea, bloating, fluid retention, and flatulence, and over time can lead to weakness, fatigue, muscle wasting, weight loss and various conditions specific to whatever vitamins or minerals aren't absorbed[verywell.com]
  • […] other laxatives travel to foreign countries, which may introduce parasites into the body intestinal surgery excess alcohol consumption Individuals may experience symptoms of malabsorption, the most common of which include: anemia, with weakness and fatigue[encyclopedia.com]
  • Signs of malabsorption may include one or more of the following: Abdominal pain Anemia Bleeding Bloating Bulky stools Changes in weight and growth Children may experience a failure to thrive Cramping Dehydration Diarrhea Fatigue Fatty stools Flatulence[puristat.com]
  • Growth retardation, failure to thrive, delayed puberty in children Swelling or oedema from loss of protein Anaemias, commonly from vitamin B12, folic acid and iron deficiency presenting as fatigue and weakness.[en.wikipedia.org]
  • A 47-year-old man had diarrhea in 1965. Four years later, malabsorption syndrome was diagnosed and the patient was found to have mild lymphocytosis.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • When such diarrhea is chronic, the associated general malabsorptive state results in malnutrition. In the classical descriptions of children with malabsorption syndromes, chronic diarrhea usually led to failure to grow.[doi.org]
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.[icd9data.com]
  • METHODS: 137 children presenting with diarrhea of more than 3 weeks' duration and/or growth failure and abnormality of one of more tests of malabsorption were studied.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • The most common symptoms of malabsorption syndrome are diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, cramping and weight loss.[web.archive.org]
  • A patient with malabsorption syndrome and steatorrhea was found to have IgG (lambda) M component in the blood and some extracellular deposition of IgG in the intestinal wall. There was no evidence of multiple myeloma.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Schilling tests (with intrinsic factor) improve in two patients and steatorrhea improved in all and there was significant weight gain. The antibiotic had no apparent effect on D-xylose or folate absorption tests.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Steatorrhea. The unabsorbed fats are then secreted giving the stools a classical fatty appearance, in a condition known as steatorrhea. Usually, the stools are pale, bulky, greasy, and foul-smelling. Abdominal bloating and flatulence.[symptoma.com]
  • Steatorrhea following the administration of neomycin accompanied by prednisone was approximately half as severe as that following neomycin alone. 4.[link.springer.com]
  • RESULTS: The most common symptoms were diarrhea or steatorrhea in 95% of patients (n 18), anorexia in 42% (n 8), and dizziness in 32% (n 6).[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Abdominal Pain
  • Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.[icd9data.com]
  • Although fructose restriction appears to benefit children with functional abdominal pain, fructose restriction itself may not be the key player.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Symptoms include abdominal marked discomfort, bloating and diarrhea A group of symptoms such as gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea resulting from the body's inability to properly absorb nutrients A syndrome resulting from the inadequate absorption[icd9data.com]
  • We describe a 30-year-old woman of Turkish descent presenting with abdominal pain and signs of malabsorption.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • We describe a 39-year-old woman with an 8-month history of abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. Clinical and laboratory evaluation indicated the presence of a malabsorption syndrome.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
Chronic Diarrhea
  • METHODS: Fasting, post-prandial and post-octreotide antroduodenal motility parameters were compared in 18 untreated patients with MAS presenting with chronic diarrhea (tropical sprue 10, small bowel bacterial overgrowth 3, celiac disease 2, common variable[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • METHODS: We analyzed the clinical presentation, endoscopic and histological features of 94 consecutive patients (age 12 years) with chronic diarrhea and malabsorption syndrome.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • 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.[medlineplus.gov]
  • In the classical descriptions of children with malabsorption syndromes, chronic diarrhea usually led to failure to grow.[doi.org]
  • diarrhea and thus void unnecessary hospital admissions and invasive procedures, we reviewed the charts of 58 adult patients admitted during 6 years because of chronic diarrhea who said normal stool and colonic examinations.[doi.org]
Failure to Thrive
  • Herein, we describe a 14-year-old girl who presented with anemia, failure to thrive, osteoporosis, zinc, and vitamin deficiency. She was diagnosed as localized mesenteric mixed type of Castleman disease.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • This is called failure to thrive. The child may not grow and develop normally. Adults may also have failure to thrive, with weight loss, muscle wasting, weakness, and even problems thinking. Changes in the stools are often present, but not always.[nlm.nih.gov]
  • Gastrointestinal dysfunction is linked inexorably as a possible cause of failure to thrive.[pedsinreview.aappublications.org]
  • Diarrhea (sometimes alternating with constipation), bloating or cramping, failure to thrive, frequent bulky stools, muscle wasting, and a distended abdomen may accompany malabsorption.[randyschellenberg.tripod.com]
  • The occurrence of purpura with eczema craquele has not been previously described in the literature.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Purpura, subconjunctival hemorrhage, or even frank bleeding may reflect hypoprothrombinemia secondary to vitamin K malabsorption. Osteopenia is common, especially in the presence of steatorrhea.[en.wikipedia.org]
  • […] petechiae Vitamins K and C Carpopedal spasm Ca, Mg Edema Protein Glossitis Vitamins B 2 and B 12, folate, niacin, iron Night blindness Vitamin A Pain in limbs, bones, pathologic fractures K, Mg, Ca, vitamin D Peripheral neuropathy Vitamins B 1, B 6, B 12 Amenorrhea[msdmanuals.com]
  • Prolonged malnutrition may induce amenorrhea, infertility, and impotence. Edema and even ascites may reflect hypoproteinemia associated with protein losing enteropathy caused by lymphatic obstruction or extensive mucosal inflammation.[en.wikipedia.org]


The diagnostic tests used to identify malabsorption include the following:

  • CBC count: used to detect microcytic and macrocytic anemia due to iron deficiency and vitamin B-12 respectively.
  • Serum levels: the levels of electrolytes, minerals and vitamins are greatly affected during malabsorption, and can be used as useful diagnostic markers to detect impaired digestion and premucosal malabsorption. 
  • Fecal fat excretion test: in addition to measuring the amount of fecal fats, this test can also be used to detect the presence of the pancreatic proteases, to distinguish between malabsorption with pancreatic origin from malabsorption with intestinal origin. A finding of more than 7 gram of fats per day is the hallmark of malabsorption. 
  • Hydrogen breath test: The undigested carbohydrates are fermented by the bacterial flora resulting in a marked production and accumulation of hydrogen [10][11]. Carbohydrate absorption can also be measured by measuring the level of xylose excreted from the urine over a period of 5 hours, since this compound represents a not-metabolized carbohydrate form. 
  • Endoscopy and histological examination: very useful to detect reduced absorptive areas due to surgical bowel resection or disease-induced absorptive capacity reduction. 
  • Schilling test: employed with or without intrinsic factor, it is very useful to detect vitamin B12 deficiency, which later might lead to other gastric diseases such as gastritis and other inflammatory conditions. It is also very useful to determine if a deficiency is the result of other related conditions, such as pernicious anemia, pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, ileal disease, or bacterial overgrowth
  • Barium studies: when applied to study the upper gastrointestinal tract, these tests might underline abnormal small bowel patterns revealing the etiological factors of a malabsorption episode.
  • Ultrasound test: together with contrast radiography for fistulae, this test is used to detect postmucosal malabsorption resulting from impaired nutrient transport. 
  • CT scan: CT scan can be employed to detect other related conditions, such as episodes of chronic pancreatitis and enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram (ERCP): this technique helps study malabsorption when this results from episodes of pancreatitis or biliary-related disorders. 
  • Upper endoscopy: when combined with small-bowel biopsy, it is very useful to detect episodes of other mucosal diseases, usually due to bacterial overgrowth. The bacterial overgrowth can easily be revealed with 14C-xylose breath test, using the high level of CO2 produced by the marked catabolism of ingested xylose of the overgrown bacterial flora. Very useful is also the H2 breath test for the high H2 levels produced during bacterial carbohydrate degradation. The use of 14C-xylose breath test and H2 breath test is now become very common and has replaced the use of bacterial cultures to diagnose bacterial overgrowth-related syndromes. 
  • X-ray: this test can reveal the presence of other anatomic conditions that might favor bacterial overgrowth, such as jejunal diverticula, fistulas, surgically created blind loops, or ulcerations. These pathological conditions can also include chronic pancreatitis which lead to pancreatic calcifications. The diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis can be confirmed by CT scan, magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), and the already mentioned ERCP. Tests of pancreatic insufficiency might also be used to reveal the presence of other mild pancreatic diseases
Albumin Decreased
  • Serum albumin- Decreased (protein loss) 4. Hypocalcemia, hypophosphatemia, increased alkaline phosphatase - Vitamin D malabsorption 5. Stool examination for fat, ova or cysts. Special Tests: A.[histopathology-india.net]
  • In this setting, microcytic anaemia usually implies iron deficiency and macrocytosis can be caused by impaired folic acid or B12 absorption or both. Low cholesterol or triglyceride may give a clue toward fat malabsorption.[en.wikipedia.org]
Giardia Lamblia
  • The pathogenic parasites detected in adults were Giardia lamblia 12 (24%), E. histolytica / dispar 5 (10%), Ancylostoma duodenale 4 (8%), H. nana 2 (4%) and Cyclospora cayetanensis 1 (2%).[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • 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.[wakegastro.com]
  • Cevallos AM, Patchett SE, Alstead EM, et al: Stimulation of gut ornithine decarboxylase by Giardia lamblia in vitro. Gut 1994;35(suppl 1):T160.[doi.org]
  • lamblia (beaver fever) infestation, strongyloides stercoralis (threadworm) infestation, necator americanus (hookworm), Crohn's disease, bile duct obstruction, amyloidosis, lymphoma, biliary cirrhosis, and many others.[randyschellenberg.tripod.com]
  • Causes outside the gut such as diabetes and eating disorders Here is a list of some of the causes of malabsorption, by category: Mucosal causes AIDS (Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) Celiac disease Cow’s milk protein intolerance Giardia lamblia / giardiasis[puristat.com]


The treatment of malabsorption depends on the etiological factors [10], and it is usually combined with an appropriate diet to enhance clinical outcome. There are two basic principles underlying the malabsorption management: (1) nutritional deficiency correction and (2) causative disease treatment.

Nutritional Support

  • the nutrients in deficit, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamins, must be supplemented through an appropriate diet;
  • the supplementation of the proteins in deficit is also important;
  • fats can be substituted by medium-chain triglycerides, since their transport route is portal rather than lymphatic and they do not required the formation of micelles to be absorbed;
  • in certain clinical conditions, parental nutrition might become important, if not necessary. These conditions include massive resection or extensive local enteritis

Treatment of causative diseases


Malnutrition is the main consequence of malabsorption. For this reason, it should be identified as soon as possible and treated accordingly.


As previously mentioned, malabsorption is the consequence of several ethological factors which can be divided into three major groups, according to the three major phases of natural nutrient absorption [3].

Problems in the luminal phase: In this case maldigestion derives from problems involving the digestive mediators and interests patients who have undergone gastrectomy or those who have experienced deficiencies of pancreatic and intestinal enzymes and bile salts. Pancreatic insufficiency resulting from chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic resection, pancreatic cancer, or cystic fibrosis is the most common cause of impaired nutrient hydrolysis. The resulting lipase and proteases deficiency is then responsible for the subsequent malabsorption.

Problems in the mucosal phase: Mucosal and mural causes are very frequent ethological factors, and include conditions such as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, tropical sprue, autoimmune enteropathy, HIV/ AIDS-related enteropathy, and systemic sclerosis. Frequent are also the acquired disorders, as indicated below:

  1. Decreased absorptive surface area (usually observed in intestinal resection)
  2. Damaged absorbing surface (as observed in celiac sprue, AIDS enteropathy, or chemotherapy)
  3. Intestinal wall infiltrating disease (such as lymphoma and amyloidosis)
  4. Infections (such as bacterial overgrowth, giardiasis, and Whipple disease)

Problems in the postabsorptive phase: This includes the lymphatic system obstruction, both of congenital origin (like intestinal lymphangiectasia) and acquired origin (like tuberculosis), which then causes the impairment of chylomicron and lipoprotein absorption resulting in fat malabsorption or protein-losing enteropathy.


In Europe and the United States the prevalence of malabsorption ranges from 1 in 250 to 1 in 133 people, and appears to be higher in those with relatives affected by multiple sclerosis, with 1 in 22 people in the case of first-degree relatives and 1 in 39 people in the case of second-degree relatives. The disorder is very rarely reported in people with African, Caribbean, Chinese or Japanese origin. Malabsorption is far more frequent in women than men, while no age predilection has been reported.

Sex distribution
Age distribution


It is paramount to understand the normal processes of digestion and absorption to comprehend the pathophysiology of malabsorption.

Digestion and absorption are generally divided in three major phases:

  1. Luminal phase: the digestive enzymes and bile hydrolyze fats, proteins, and carbohydrates;
  2. Mucosal phase: the digested products are carried inside the intestinal epithelial cells from the gastrointestinal lumen, by means of the special brush-border membrane of the epithelial cells themselves;
  3. Postabsorptive phase: the nutrients are transported from the epithelial cell to the rest of the body through the lymphatic and portal circulation. 

Malabsoprtion occurs when any of these three phases is impaired. Instead, the term maldigestion is specifically used to refer to the impaired luminal phase.


While medium-chain triglycerides are directly absorbed by the gastrointestinal mucosa, long-chain triglycerides are split into fatty acids and monoglycerides by the pancreatic enzymes (lipase and colipase). These are then combined with bile acids and phospholipids to form micelles, which then pass through jejunal enterocytes and enter the body. The absorbed fatty acids are re-synthesized and turned into chylomicrons after being combined with proteins, cholesterol, and phospholipids. Chylomicrons are subsequently transported around the body through the lymphatic system. Fat deficiency occurs in three different occasions, when unabsorbed fats capture fat-soluble vitamins, when bacterial overgrowth causes bile salts deconjugation and dehydroxylation limiting the fat absorption itself, or when water secretion is stimulated by unabsorbed bile salts resulting in diarrhea.


Carbohydrates are split into monosaccharides by the amylase and the brush border enzymes present throughout the microvilli surface. Unabsorbed carbohydrates are fermented by gastrointestinal bacteria into CO2, methane, H2, and short fatty acids which in turn cause diarrhea. The remaining gases produced in the process cause the subsequent bloating and abdominal distension.


Protein digestion is started in the stomach by gastrin pepsin, which also stimulates cholecystokinin release. Trypsinogen is then converted into trypsin by enterokinases, for the activation of pancreatic proteases and the subsequent hydrolysis of proteins into oligopeptides. These are finally absorbed directly or hydrolyzed as amino acids.


As for treatment, prevention too depends on the etiological factors concerned. Preventive malabsorption measures include lifestyle change, appropriate healthy diet, body cleansing, and daily physical exercise. Some traditional and natural therapies can also be useful.


The gastrointestinal tract (GI) is the site where ingested nutrients, such as vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, can be absorbed and transported into the blood stream. Most of the absorption takes place in the small intestine (SI), thanks to the wide absorbing surface due to the great number of villi, numerous digestive enzymes, and the complex network of lymphatic and blood vessel which make sure the nutrients are properly carried into the blood. The digestive process is guaranteed by many factors working together, such as the activity and production of the enzymes involved the correct function of the digestive mucosa, the adequate and appropriate blood supply, the mobility of the intestine, as well as the presence of a proper bacterial flora. Therefore, any malfunction related to each of these aspects might potentially lead to a serious failure to absorb nutrients and cause malabsorption. The classical symptoms of this condition include diarrhea, steatorrhea, weight loss, and anemia.

Malabsorption occurs when the intestinal absorption capability falls under 85% of its full capability [1], is a situation in which the gastrointestinal tract is no longer capable to properly digest and absorb nutrients and maintain the mucosa integrity and fluid balance, a condition which results in an seriously impaired nutritional status and severely weakened physical conditions [2]. The intestinal malfunction can result from congenital defects which cause functional problems in the membrane transport system of the small intestine epithelium (primary malabsorption), or from acquired defects which might appear on the gastrointestinal surface when certain conditions occur (secondary malabsorption). Malabsorption should not be confused with maldigestion, which is due to an impaired nutrient digestion at the terminal digestive site of mucosal epithelial cells. Although their pathophysiology is different, digestion and absorption are strictly interdependent and their clinical presentations are very similar. For this reason, malabsorption usually indicates problems in both processes. In clinical practice, it is very important to find out the etiological factors underlying an episode of malabsorption, as the treatment depends on this evaluation.

Patient Information

The term “malabsorption” refers to a series of pathological conditions that originate from the impaired ability of the gastrointestinal tract to properly absorb nutrients. Conditions causing malabsorption include gastrointestinal infections and surgical procedures such as bowel resection.

The most common signs of malabsorption include diarrhea, steatorrhea, abdominal bloating, and nutritional deficiencies. Diarrhea is the consequence of the presence of unabsorbed water in the gastrointestinal tract, while steatorrhea, the production of light-colored, soft, bulky, greasy, and foul-smelling stools, is the consequence of the presence of large amounts of unabsorbed fats. In addition to diarrhea, the presence of unabsorbed carbohydrates leads to abdominal bloating and flatulence.

Nutritional deficiencies are responsible of a series of other malabsorption-related pathological conditions. For example, edema is the result of impaired protein absorption which in turn causes water accumulation in interstitial spaces throughout the body, while anemia is triggered by iron or vitamin deficiency.

Stool test is the most reliable tool to diagnose malabsorption, especially for detecting and measuring the quantity of stool fats. An amount of stool fats higher than 7 grams per day is usually the diagnostic hallmark which underlines the presence of malasborption. Very useful are also histological tests to detect the presence of parasitic infections, together with bowel biopsy to find possible abnormalities in the small intestine walls and pancreatic function tests to detect impaired pancreas functionality.

Frequently used as diagnostic tools are also blood and other laboratory tests, which reveal possible deficiencies in the levels of lactose and vitamin B12. Instead, imaging tests allow to reveal structural anomalies or episodes of bacterial overgrowth which might underline an episode of malabsorption. These include common techniques such as endoscopy, CT scan, and x-ray.

The prognosis of malabsorption depends on the etiological factors concerned.



  1. Keur MB, Beishuizen A, van Bodegraven AA. Diagnosing malabsorption in the intensive care unit. F1000 Med Rep. 2010; 2 : 7
  2. Davidson J, Plumb A, Burnett H. Adult intestinal failure. Clin Radiol. 2010; 65:395–402.
  3. Owens SR, Greenson JK. The pathology of malabsorption: current concepts. Histopathology. 2007 Jan; 50(1):64-82.
  4. Holt PR. Diarrhea and malabsorption in the elderly. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2001 Jun. 30(2):427-44.
  5. Potter GD. Bile acid diarrhea. Dig Dis. 1998 Mar-Apr. 16(2):118-24. 
  6. Savvidou S, Goulis J, Gantzarou A, Ilonidis G. Pneumobilia, chronic diarrhea, vitamin K malabsorption: a pathognomonic triad for cholecystocolonic fistulas. World J Gastroenterol. 2009 Aug 28. 15(32):4077-82.
  7. Schiller LR. Diarrhea and malabsorption in the elderly. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2009 Sep. 38(3):481-502. 
  8. Juckett G, Trivedi R. Evaluation of chronic diarrhea. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Nov 15. 84(10):1119-26.
  9. Bhat DS, Thuse NV, Lubree HG, et al. Increases in plasma holotranscobalamin can be used to assess vitamin B-12 absorption in individuals with low plasma vitamin B-12. J Nutr. 2009 Nov. 139(11):2119-23. 
  10. Hodgson HJF, Epstein O. Malabsorption. Medicine 2007; 35:220–225.
  11. Crocella L, Rocca R, Daperno M, et al. Bowel malabsorption. Immuno-analyse et Biologie Spécialisée 2008; 23:224–229.

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Last updated: 2019-07-11 20:54