You might eat a healthy diet. You may try to take the right supplements and drink pure, hydrating beverages. But all that might not matter if your digestive tract cannot actually absorb the nutrients you’re eating and drinking. Here’s what you need to know about malabsorption syndrome and natural ways to get your digestive tract back on track.
What Is Malabsorption Syndrome?
What is nutrient malabsorption?
When food enters your digestive tract, and more specifically your small intestine, the intestine’s role is to absorb the nutrients in the food you eat. But sometimes there’s a breakdown in the chain of activities that occur in your digestive tract.
Malabsorption syndrome is when at least one of the following three processes in the digestion process (1) goes awry and doesn’t function properly:
- Enzymes break down the fats, proteins and carbohydrates in your food.
- Additional enzymes convert some nutrients into active forms that your body then absorbs.
- Your lymphatic system then transports and carries these absorbed nutrients to various parts of your body.
Signs and Symptoms
Malabsorption syndrome symptoms and signs are inherently linked with various nutritional deficiencies. Thus, the symptoms can be very subtle, and different from person to person depending on what specific nutrients their bodies are not absorbing properly.
It’s also important to note that some cases of malabsorption syndrome are linked with specific diseases, such as celiac disease or liver disease or pancreatitis, which bring with them their own set of specific side effects.
However, some general symptoms may be present in most, if not all, cases of malabsorption syndrome: (2)
- Weight loss
- Loss of muscle mass
- Weakness and chronic fatigue
- Poor mental clarity or trouble thinking
- Changes in your stool and digestion, including:
What are the symptoms of fat malabsorption?
There may be nutrient-specific stool and body symptoms that can help you and your doctor diagnose exactly what’s going on.
For instance, if your stool is light in color, floats easily or sticks to the toilet, and is very soft, you may not be absorbing fats. This results in fatty stools with these fat malabsorption symptoms and characteristics.
If you aren’t absorbing certain carbohydrates (such as fructose malabsorption), you may experience diarrhea, gas or bloating.
If your body isn’t getting enough protein, you may notice hair loss, skin rashes or dry skin, or fluid retention.
Can you have malabsorption and weight gain?
If you aren’t getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals, you may experience weight loss, anemia, malnutrition and more.
Causes and Risk Factors
What causes intestinal malabsorption?
In many people, simple factors — such as poor gut health or a poor diet — can lead to malabsorption. However, in more severe cases, malabsorption may arise due to major risk factors and disease-related causes, such as: (3)
- Celiac disease. Approximately 1 percent of the population has this disease (4) which can affect how their bodies digest food, especially when gluten is present in their diet.
- Lactose intolerance. Approximately 65 percent of the population have trouble digesting lactose. (5) The stress that lactose places on your digestive system can affect how your body processes and absorbs essential nutrients.
- Short bowel syndrome. If you have a problem with your small intestine due to birth defects, a disease or even an injury, you may need surgery. The resulting surgery can shorten the length of your intestine, and less intestine means less nutrients get absorbed.
- Whipple’s disease. It’s a very rare disease of the digestive tract caused by a bacteria infection, (6) and it can hamper your intestine’s ability to process and absorb fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
- Medications. Some drugs may affect how your body processes and absorbs specific nutrients.
Malabsorption Conventional Treatment
To diagnose your condition and figure out if your symptoms are signs of malabsorption syndrome or some other problem, your doctor may do one or more of the following: (7)
- Ask you about your symptoms and review your medical history.
- Order a blood or stool test.
- Take a biopsy to examine the tissue in your small intestine.
A stool test is one of the most reliable tests for malabsorption, especially when trying to test whether or not your body is absorbing fat. Your doctor may also look for signs of undigested food in your stool.
Meanwhile, a blood test is one of the more reliable tests for nutrient deficiencies.
Conventional treatment for malabsorption syndrome depends on the underlying cause, as it’s important that your doctor deal with the root issue and not just the symptoms. (8) It’s critical to understand that occasional signs and symptoms of malabsorption, such as bloating and gas, are not immediate cause for concern. What is concerning are any long-term nutritional deficiencies.
In some situations, the underlying cause can be overcome by taking antibiotics to get rid of bacterial infections or changing medications if one of the drugs was contributing to malabsorption.
In cases where the underlying cause can’t be “cured” (e.g. if your intestine is shortened due to surgery, or if you’re experiencing a chronic condition like lactose intolerance), your doctor may implement special dietary measures.
For example, if you’re lactose intolerant, your doctor may recommend a lactose-free malabsorption treatment diet.
5 Natural Ways to Help Improve Malabsorption
If you want to improve how your body breaks down food, and processes and absorbs your food’s nutrients, try these malabsorption treatment natural ideas.
1. Consider Taking Supplements Containing Digestive Enzymes
For carbohydrate absorption, consider the following enzymes:
- Lactase (ideal specifically for those with a lactose problem)
For protein digestion:
For digestion of fat:
You can find these enzymes in various over-the-counter natural health supplements, many of which are sourced from plant-based ingredients so people of all diet types and styles can benefit from them.
2. Change Your Diet
In conjunction with the advice of your doctor and a registered dietitian, you may benefit from a high-calorie diet. This gives your body extra vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Even if your body isn’t absorbing enough of one of these key nutrients, a higher-calorie diet supplies excess amounts of your missing nutrients so you have a higher chance of hitting your basic nutritional benchmarks.
Similarly, your doctor may suggest taking supplements so you get more of the specific nutrient you’re not absorbing. If you’re not getting enough protein from your food, for example, a protein powder made from bone broth can give you an extra dose of protein, electrolytes and minerals.
A registered dietitian may also test various approaches to diet. For example, your body digests and absorbs medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) faster and more efficiently than traditional dietary fat. (10) If your doctor’s tests identify fat malabsorption as an issue, a registered dietitian may help provide recipes and meal plans that include more MCTs and less traditional dietary fats for a fat malabsorption treatment that doesn’t sacrifice other important nutritional building blocks.
Because men and women with malabsorption are already at a higher risk of malnutrition, it’s important that you work with a dietary expert before trying to self-treat this condition through diet alone.
3. Eat More Fiber
The average adult needs at least 30 grams of fiber a day from food (not supplements), yet most people only get about 15 grams of fiber daily. (11)
Fiber has many benefits for the general population, but especially those with malabsorption syndrome. By eating more fiber, you boost digestion and also slow down how long food stays in your digestive tract. (12) This gives your body more time to process and absorb key nutrients.
A high-fiber diet has also been linked to a reduction in various digestive tract issues, including acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. (13)
Some of the best sources of fiber include dark green, leafy vegetables; whole grains, such as steel-cut oatmeal, sprouted whole grain bread, and quinoa; and legumes, such as kidney beans, pinto beans or black beans.
4. Reduce Stress
You can’t see stress, but your digestive system can definitely feel its effects. When you’re under a lot of pressure and experiencing stress or anxiety, your body diverts blood and other resources away from your digestive system, which can slow down or block proper digestion from happening.
Other de-stressing strategies include meditation, yoga and deep breathing exercises.
5. Chew Your Food
Not chewing your food well has been linked to a reduction in how many nutrients your body absorbs from your diet. (15)
When you chew properly, your mouth begins the important digestion process. Your teeth break down the food into easier-to-manage particles, and the enzymes in your saliva start to break down the fats and the carbohydrates in your food. The saliva also helps carry your food efficiently through your intestines.
To improve your approach to chewing:
- Slow down. Aim to chew and swallow before reaching for the next bite.
- Avoid distractions. When you sit down to eat, focus simply on eating. When you’re distracted by watching TV or reading a book, you may inadvertently scarf down your food too fast.
- Be mindful. Practicing mindfulness helps slow your eating pace, which in turn helps put less strain on your digestive tract. Bring your awareness to your meal and notice the different temperatures, flavors, textures and smells in every bite.
Malabsorption may seem like something that’s easy to fix simply through diet and lifestyle changes. However, it’s important to remember that if your body isn’t getting the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals or vitamins that it needs to thrive, this can lead to major complications and health risks.
For example, if you’re not getting enough protein, you may experience muscle wasting, muscle loss, poor strength and a related increase in injury risks.
If you have any concerns about malabsorption, contact your doctor immediately to get a diagnosis and begin the road to recovery and full health.
Even if you eat a healthy diet, you may be missing out on important vitamins, minerals or other nutrients thanks to malabsorption:
- Malabsorption syndrome refers to any case where your body’s digestion process is broken and your body doesn’t absorb enough nutrients.
- Three key digestion steps that could go awry include: how your food is broken down, how your food is absorbed, and how that food is transported through your body.
- Signs and symptoms are often unique to the specific nutrient that you’re not getting enough of, but general symptoms include weight loss, loss of muscle mass, and changes in your stool.
- Major causes and risk factors include malabsorption diseases (e.g. celiac disease), genetics (e.g. lactose intolerance), bacteria infections (e.g. Whipple disease), certain medications, or physical realities (e.g. a shorter intestine due to past surgery).
- Conventional diagnosis and treatment usually involves blood and stool tests, then changes to your medications, diet or lifestyle.
- Malabsorption syndrome can lead to major complications, so immediate treatment is always necessary. You should always work with your doctor and dietitian.