Gastrointestinal Malabsorption

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Adrian Bonsall | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

Gastrointestinal malabsorption means a failure to fully absorb digested foods from the gut (bowel) into your body. There are many different causes. Prolonged intestinal malabsorption may cause problems because of a lack of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins that are essential to keep you healthy.

The treatment will depend on the cause of malabsorption but will also include supplements and other ways to make up for the reduced amount of carbohydrate, protein, fat, minerals and vitamins getting into your body.

There may be no symptoms if the malabsorption is mild and has not continued for very long. More severe or persistent malabsorption may lead to:

  • Tiredness (fatigue): because of a lack of energy and essential vitamins absorbed from food.
  • Weight loss: if you can't absorb enough energy (calories) from your food then this will cause you to lose weight (and may cause poor growth in children).
  • Persistent (chronic) diarrhoea: this is a common symptom of persistent malabsorption.
  • Pale, bulky and smelly stools (steatorrhoea): there is excessive fat in the stools and they become pale, bulky and very smelly. Stools float and are difficult to flush away. They often leave a greasy rim around the pan.

Intestinal malabsorption may also cause:

There may also be other symptoms due to the particular underlying condition that is causing the malabsorption.

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The most common causes in the UK are coeliac disease, Crohn's disease and chronic pancreatitis. However, the malabsorption of simple carbohydrates affects about 1 in 4 people in Europe. Some diseases associated with malabsorption are found more often in some families - for example, coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis and lactose intolerance.

The causes of gastrointestinal malabsorption include:

Problems with absorbing food from the gut (bowel) into your body

Structural causes

Malabsorption may be cause by loss of part of the bowel that is essential to absorb the broken down (digested) food into the body - for example:

  • Removal of the stomach or part of the bowel after a stomach or bowel operation.
  • Crohn's disease.

Causes outside the bowel

Examples include:

Initial tests will include blood tests and stool tests. Further tests may include an abdominal ultrasound scan, barium studies and a computerised tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Any further tests will depend on the likely underlying cause of the intestinal malabsorption.

The treatment will mainly depend on the underlying cause of the malabsorption. However, treatment will also be needed to increase the amount of essential nutrients in the body, including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins (nutritional support).

Coeliac Disease

Dermatitis Herpetiformis

Further reading and references