A healthy body needs to be constantly supplied with nutrients that give it energy and substances to build body tissues. Nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream mainly in the small intestine.
If something is wrong with the small intestine structure or if the chemical compounds and the enzymes in the small intestine do not contribute to the digestion process properly, some of the ingredients in food will not be fully absorbed. Because of this, malabsorption is basically a symptom of disease affecting the function of the small intestine.
Malabsorption can be a consequence of a whole range of diseases. It can be caused by a physical change of the small intestine surface (e.g. Crohn’s disease) or a reaction to some ingredient in nutrition – e.g. gluten (see celiac disease in adults article). In rare hereditary diseases called lactose intolerance, the lack of a one digestive enzyme causes the inability to digest and absorb the sugars present in the milk. Malabsorption can also be associated with sideropenic anemia, pernicious anemia and chronic pancreatitis, and may sometimes also be a complication of diabetes, thyroid disease or cystic fibrosis.
An additional cause of malabsorption is an operation on the digestive tract. Thus, for example, one type of surgery where a part of a stomach is removed changes the “climate” of the small intestine, although the consequences of these changes are mostly felt only after several months or even years.
Common symptoms are occasioanl feelings of discomfort in the abdominal cavity, soft and yellowish gray stool which often float on water due to high fat content. Over the course of months or years untreated malabsorption leads to loss of weight and energy, loss of breath, and various symptoms of vitamin or mineral deficiency.
Heavy and general malabsorption is extremely rare in developed countries. About 33% of subjects undergoing an operation on the digestive tract show signs of malabsorption in the post-operative period, although they are mild and, with hospital care, soon disappear.
What to do?
If you think you have malabsorption, contact your doctor. He will first examine you thoroughly, then take several blood and stool samples for analysis to determine the levels of protein, fat, and minerals.
Once the condition is diagnosed, the main task of the doctor is to discover the basic cause of malabsorption and to treat it. In some cases, a very caloric diet with high protein content can help, with an addition of vitamin and mineral extracts.