Malabsorption is the medical term for not digesting and absorbing your food properly. Many types of medical conditions can lead to malabsorption, which typically comes to light when you experience signs and symptoms. Your digestive system is the primary site for many of the signs and symptoms of malabsorption. Other organ systems may be involved due to nutritional deficiencies that can develop if you have a serious digestive problem.
Undigested food in your digestive tract typically causes diarrhea. A high concentration of unabsorbed nutrients in your intestines prompts an influx of water, leading to diarrhea. You may experience cramps and abdominal pain associated with the diarrhea. If you are having difficulty digesting fats, you may notice your stools float in the commode water and have a greasy appearance. Chronic diarrhea is the most common symptom of malabsorption.
Bloating and Gas
Most food digestion and absorption occurs in your small bowel. Under normal circumstances, the fecal material that reaches your large bowel, or colon, has a low concentration of undigested food. With malabsorption, however, large amounts of undigested carbohydrates, fats and/or proteins are transported to your colon. The normal bacteria there feed on the undigested nutrients, releasing gases that cause abdominal bloating and increased passage of gas from your rectum. The overabundance of water in your bowels adds to the bloating you experience with malabsorption.
Unintentional weight loss is a common symptom of malabsorption syndromes that significantly interfere with your ability to digest carbohydrates, fats, proteins or a combination of these major nutrients. You may be eating a sufficient number of calories, but food that passes through your gastrointestinal tract undigested does not afford you the benefit of those calories. An isolated digestive problem, such as difficulty digesting milk sugar, does not usually cause significant weight loss. You are most likely to experience unintentional weight loss with digestive problems that affect multiple nutrients, such as celiac disease, pancreatitis and Crohn's disease.
Among children, serious digestive problems commonly lead to poor growth and failure to meet expected physical milestones. Insufficient calories and protein are significant factors in stunting a child's growth. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies related to malabsorption also contribute to poor growth. If your child is not gaining weight as expected, talk with your doctor.
Lack of Energy
You may experience lack of energy and easy fatigability if you have a digestive problem that leads to significant malabsorption. Insufficient calories to meet your energy demands may be complicated vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Several vitamins aid in the metabolic production of energy, which slows when you have a deficiency. Digestive problems that lead to deficiencies of vitamin B-12, folate and iron cause anemia, which further contributes to your lack of energy.
Is This an Emergency?
- Tufts University; Pathophysiology of Diarrhea; Laurence S. Bailen, M.D.; 2007
- "The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals"; Malabsorption Syndromes; Atenodoro R. Ruiz, Jr., M.D.; January 2008
- "Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 16th Edition"; Dennis L. Kasper, M.D., et al., Editors; 2004
- Patient.Co.UK: Gastrointestinal Malabsorption