Malabsorption Syndrome and Nutrition Problems

Avoiding certain foods may help manage malabsorption syndrome.
Avoiding certain foods may help manage malabsorption syndrome.. Colleen Butler / Getty Images

Malabsorption is a condition in which your digestive system loses the ability to absorb certain nutrients. It can be caused by a variety of illnesses or can happen as a side effect of some types of medications and surgical procedures. Some forms of malabsorption, such as pernicious anemia, are unique to particular nutrients (in that case, a vitamin B-12 deficiency) while other malabsorption syndromes can be more general when you lose the ability to absorb several nutrients.

Digestion and Absorption

Whenever you eat food, your body goes through a series of processes so that you can absorb individual nutrients into your blood stream. Here's the quick version of how it happens. Digestion starts in the mouth when you bite and chew your food, mixing it with saliva, although, you can say that digestion begins when you smell food or think about eating because that starts the flow of saliva. Your stomach squeezes and churns the food you've swallowed to mix it with digestive juices released from specialized cells in the stomach lining. The juices start to break some of the nutrients into small pieces.

Digestion is completed in the small intestine where enzymes released by the pancreas break those smaller pieces down into individual nutrients (both micro and macronutrients) that can be absorbed through the walls of the small intestines into the blood.

Malabsorption may occur if the nutrients aren't broken down into small enough bits and pieces, or it can happen if the walls of the small intestine become damaged.

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. You need to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms.

Malabsorption Syndrome and Dietary Changes

The medical treatment for malabsorption syndrome depends on what's causing the malabsorption; sometimes the main treatment is to make dietary changes, and no medication is necessary. For example, Celiac disease involves the inability to absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins when the walls of the small intestine become damaged by an autoimmune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is to avoid eating foods with gluten, which allows the intestinal tissue to heal.

In other cases, medical treatment is necessary, and you'll also need to take specific dietary supplements to replace nutrients you can't absorb. The supplements need to be formulated so that they're easy to digest and absorb. In some cases, the nutrients will need to be given intravenously, along with fluid if you've become dehydrated. Your doctors will help you with this.

Prevention of Malabsorption Syndrome

You can't really avoid diseases like celiac disease or pernicious anemia, but following your doctor's advice is essential for getting all the nutrients you need.

Sometimes you can prevent malabsorption problems. Avoid excessive use of laxatives or alcohol, both of which are associated with a higher risk of malabsorption syndromes. If you have any medical conditions involving your digestive system, it's important to talk to your health care provider.


Merck Manual Home Health Handbook. "Overview of Malabsorption." Accessed April 11, 2016.

New York University Langone Medical Center. "Malabsorption." Accessed April 11, 2016.

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