Intestinal Malabsorption, otherwise called Malabsorption Syndrome, is a very commonly occurring digestive disorder, wherein the small intestine is incapable of assimilating key nutrients of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, from ingested food. The small intestine is a compact organ composed of three segments – the ileum, jejunum and duodenum, situated in between the stomach and large intestine and behind the liver. Its surface is lined with numerous filamentous projections known as villi and the major function of the small intestine is digestion and absorption of nutrients with the assistance of bile secretions and pancreatic juices received via the hepatopancreatic duct.

In the situation of intestinal malabsorption, the small intestine is unable to carry out its crucial role in digestion, thereby leading to a host of discomforting symptoms in the affected individual. Since nutrient uptake is requisite for normal metabolism, energy needs and healthy functioning of the body, it is advised for people experiencing signs of malabsorption syndrome to promptly report them to a doctor for appropriate medical treatment, to restore digestive health.
Woman with intestinal malabsorption

Causes Of Malabsorption Syndrome:

While malabsorption syndrome is frequently witnessed in people with lactose intolerance – inability to digest lactose – a sugar in dairy products, as well as gluten intolerance – difficulty in processing gluten – a protein in wheat, barley, rye, it can be triggered due to certain underlying ailments too. These consist of chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease, congenital maladies afflicting the passage of bile fluids such as biliary atresia and even the extended intake of antibiotic medications.

Also Read: Biliary Atresia: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Intestinal malabsorption can also occur due to previous instances of surgery or infection in the intestine, which might have damaged the tissues, besides problems in the gall bladder, pancreas, liver, issues with stomach acid/digestive enzyme secretions, parasitic illnesses and undergoing radiation therapy. In very rare cases, malabsorption arises from the infectious condition - Whipple’s disease or environmental pathogenic disorders like tropical sprue.

Risk Factors:

Malabsorption can develop in individuals of all age groups and is widely reported in both men and women, but specific aspects make a person more prone to this condition, including:

  • Extreme levels of alcohol consumption
  • Having had surgery in the intestines in the past
  • Family history of malabsorption syndrome
  • Having parents, close relatives suffering from cystic fibrosis – an inherited condition that hampers the lungs and digestive tract
  • Long-term or surplus ingestion of prescription antibiotics, laxatives


The typical symptoms of intestinal malabsorption comprise:

  • Bloating, with uneasiness in the tummy
  • Excessive gas and flatulence
  • Abdominal pain and stomach cramps
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle weakness and feeling tired often
  • Fatty stools with light colours and foul smells – steatorrhea

Also Read: Steatorrhea/Fatty Stool: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment


The doctor assesses all the symptoms displayed by the patient, enquires about when the signs began, what type of foods increase abdominal discomfort and if they already have any underlying digestive sickness.

Then, a series of analyses are conducted, to determine the cause and extent of malabsorption syndrome in the patient. These consist of:

Blood Tests: A sample of the patient’s blood is tested, to check if there is any infection, aside from electrolyte or protein imbalance, for signs of malnutrition.

Stool Tests: The stool of the individual is studied for the possibility of surplus amounts of fat deposits in it, which implies that lipid absorption processes in the intestine are faulty.

Breath Tests: The physician examines the breath of the patient to determine if large amounts of hydrogen gas are present, since this is indicative of lactose intolerance, wherein the intestines release massive levels of the gaseous substance due to defective lactose absorption.

Imaging Scans: Procedures like a CT scan and MRI scan are recommended by the doctor, to clearly view the internal structures of the stomach and intestines, to establish any irregularities, inflammation.

Biopsy: A small section of cells from the small intestine are carefully excised and analysed in detail in the laboratory if imaging tests exhibit any abnormal growth or lumps in the digestive tract.


Treatment for malabsorption syndrome depends upon the causative factors, exact nature of symptoms in the patient, as well as the extent of damage to the small intestines.

Dietary modifications are recommended, such as avoiding dairy in those with lactose intolerance, steering clear of wheat, barley, rye in case of gluten sensitivity/celiac disease, consuming wholesome foods low in fats. In case of deficiencies, the pertinent vitamin and mineral supplements are prescribed to be taken along with meals, to make up for the body not absorbing these key nutrients from food. Enzyme supplements may also be given by the healthcare provider, which assists the body in assimilating nutrients that the small intestine is not able to absorb. Medicines to combat diarrhoea, stomach infections and undue bloating are also given, to ease these unpleasant symptoms.

The doctor advises the patient to follow up on their condition on a regular basis, to analyse the effectiveness of the diet changes, medications, supplements, so as to improve the functioning of the small intestine and ensure optimal digestive wellness.