One of the more common issues when it comes to gut health is malabsorption. Malabsorption itself is a fairly simple concept. It means your digestive system isn’t absorbing enough nutrients from the foods you eat. It can be a fairly benign disorder, or it can lead to rather serious health problems. When your body can’t absorb the nutrients it needs, it can’t perform at its best, and this has implications far beyond the gut.
Malabsorption can be caused by a variety of illnesses, diseases, and conditions. It can lead to several different illnesses as well. That means finding the right treatment to deal with malabsorption can be tricky and take time.
What is Malabsorption?
First, it’s worth knowing that malabsorption isn’t a single condition. Rather, there are many different kinds of malabsorption. For instance, malabsorption may affect macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—in the body. Conversely, it may affect micronutrients—vitamins and minerals. It can even affect both at the same time.
Malabsorption can also be either global or partial. That is, your body might have trouble absorbing virtually all nutrients (global malabsorption), or it might only struggle with certain kinds of nutrients (partial malabsorption), like Vitamin B12.
What Causes Malabsorption?
There are many different causes of malabsorption, which can make it difficult to treat. Here’s just a partial list of causes:
- Whipple disease
- Shwachman-Diamond syndrome
- Biliary atresia
- Cow’s milk protein intolerance
- Soy milk protein intolerance
- Immune deficiency
- Fructose intolerance
- Certain kinds of infections
Most causes have to do with how the gut breaks down food, but the specific effects can vary widely. For example,
- Celiac disease: Celiac disease involves an intolerance for foods that contain gluten. When these are introduced into the stomach, they can cause irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining. The result is that many nutrients don’t get completely digested.
- Lactose intolerance: Lactose intolerance has to do with an inability of the body to break down and absorb lactose. The undigested lactose can produce indigestion and diarrhea. However, since lactose isn’t a necessary nutrient, this particular malabsorption isn’t regarded as especially dangerous.
- Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis can affect a number of the body’s organs, including the gastrointestinal system. Specifically, it thickens the pancreas’ natural secretions, clogging that organ’s ducts. Enzymes from the pancreas, which help with digestion, can’t get to the GI tract, and the body expels food before it can harvest nutrients.
- Parasites: Certain parasites, such as Giarda—found in tainted food and drinking water—can prevent your body from absorbing the nutrients it needs.
As the list of causes suggests, malabsorption can have a number of different effects in the body. In the case of lactose intolerance, for instance, the effect is relatively mild. Undigested lactose can cause indigestion, but as lactose isn’t a nutrient the body needs, the health impacts are minimum.
In contrast, celiac disease can deprive your body of important nutrients, as can cystic fibrosis. Both conditions can leave sufferers dangerously malnourished.
In general, though, malabsorption causes:
- Iron deficiencies and anemia
- Folate deficiencies
- Vitamin B12 deficiencies
- Vitamin K deficiencies
- Rickets (Vitamin D deficiencies)
- Edema (Protein and calorie deficiencies)
Symptoms of malabsorption may be related to the specific underlying causes of the condition. For instance, if you have cystic fibrosis, the first signs may appear in childhood and can include the development of club fingers and toes, nasal polyps, and sinusitis.
More broadly, symptoms of malabsorption include:
- Fatigue: You may feel more tired because your body isn’t getting the nutrients that it needs.
- Weight loss: Rapid weight loss can be a sign your body isn’t absorbing enough calories from the foods you eat.
- Chronic diarrhea: When the body has trouble breaking food down properly, it can cause persistent diarrhea.
- Pale, bulky, or smelly stools: If the body doesn’t break down fats properly, these can wind up in your stool. Feces may float and be difficult to flush or may leave a greasy rim around the toilet bowl.
Treatment for malabsorption usually requires a two-pronged approach.
First, it’s important to deal with the underlying cause of the malabsorption. If you have celiac’s disease, the solution may be simply to cut gluten from your diet. A parasite might be treated using medicine. Cystic fibrosis, unfortunately, can’t be treated at all.
Second, it’s important to deal with the effects of the malabsorption. These can be important even if the cause of the malabsorption can’t be treated. Changes in diet can help replace nutrients. Vitamins can help supplement health needs as well.
Finally, some recent findings have suggested that probiotics can offer a useful therapy for malabsorption, at least in some cases. Probiotics, or healthy bacteria, help to balance out “bad” bacteria and may improve absorption of various nutrients. Jetson’s Digest probiotic formula and its Gut Prep prebiotic contain bacterial strains specifically designed to boost ut health and resilience.
The bottom line is that there is no universal cure for malabsorption. Treatment will always depend on the specific causes of the malabsorption and the specific effects it’s having on your body. The condition offers important insight into the significance of the gut to our overall health and a reminder that the key to a strong body is a strong gut.