Food malabsorption is a disorder in the digestive tract in absorbing nutrients and fluids adequately from food ingredients. Normally, the process of digestion and absorption of nutrients in food consists of 3 stages. In the first stage, digestive enzymes and bile break down and dissolve the carbohydrate, protein, and fat content from food. In the next stage, food that has been digested in the intestinal lumen is absorbed by intestinal epithelial cells. In the third stage, these nutrients are circulated to other parts of the body through portal circulation and the lymphatic system.
In the case of food malabsorption, both macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), cannot be absorbed adequately by the small intestine into the bloodstream. Impaired absorption of these nutrients can occur for one particular type of nutrition, such as lactose intolerance, or in some kinds of nutrients, such as in patients with celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. This condition can cause a person to experience malnutrition which is characterized by weight gain and height which are not according to age.
Symptoms of Food Malabsorption
Symptoms of food malabsorption can vary, depending on the type of nutrients that are not absorbed properly. These symptoms include:
- Sugar malabsorption; characterized by flatulence and chronic diarrhea.
- Malabsorption of vitamins and minerals; characterized by symptoms of anemia, low blood pressure, poor nutrition.
- Malabsorption of fat; characterized by feces that are light-colored or foul-smelling.
- Protein malabsorption; characterized by edema (fluid buildup) and hair loss or dryness.
Causes of Food Malabsorption
Food malabsorption can be caused by several factors, one of which is a disease, such as:
- Pancreatic diseases, such as chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis.
- Diseases caused by parasites (eg giardiasis)
- HIV infection.
- Small intestinal disorders (eg celiac disease).
- Liver disorders.
- Gallbladder disease.
Apart from illness, food malabsorption can also be caused by:
- Congenital abnormalities, such as biliary atresia (closed bile duct).
- Intestinal damage due to infection, inflammation, or trauma.
- Long-term use of certain drugs, such as tetracycline, cholestyramine, and antibiotics.
- Radiation therapy which results in injury to the intestinal lining.
- Rare medical conditions, such as short bowel syndrome and Whipple’s disease.
- Lactose deficiency and intolerance.
- Surgical measures, such as surgical removal of the gallbladder and the operation of cutting or lengthening the digestive tract.
In addition to the above causative factors, several things can also put a person at risk of suffering from food malabsorption. For example, having a family history of cystic fibrosis or malabsorption and the habit of consuming large amounts of alcohol.
Diagnosis of Food Malabsorption
When a person is suspected of having food malabsorption syndrome, the doctor will begin the examination by examining the patient’s history and daily diet. Furthermore, physical examination and follow-up examination will be carried out to confirm the diagnosis. Further examination consists of:
- Blood test. This test is to look at levels of nutrients in the blood, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, carotene, albumin, and protein.
- Respiratory Test. The test to test lactose intolerance is done by testing the patient’s breath. If breathing exhales hydrogen gas after consuming lactose, it is most likely that the patient is suffering from lactose intolerance.
- Stool test. Here, the fat content in stool samples will be examined in a laboratory.
- CT scan. This scan is done to see any structural problems in the digestive tract.
If the scan results show abnormalities in the cells of the small intestine wall, then a biopsy examination may be recommended. Here, the doctor will take a sample of small intestinal tissue through an endoscopic procedure for further investigation in the laboratory.
Treatment of Food Malabsorption
Handling food malabsorption can be carried out after the pacifier and nutritionist know the cause. The goal of treatment, in this case, is to replace nutrients and fluids that cannot be absorbed by the body. Handling includes:
- Changes in diet. The doctor will advise sufferers to increase or reduce the consumption of certain foods, for example avoiding milk or milk-based foods for sufferers of lactose intolerance, increasing consumption of foods high in potassium to offset electrolytes, or gluten-free diets for sufferers of celiac disease.
- Providing vitamin supplements. The provision of high-dose vitamins is intended to replace vitamins or minerals that are not absorbed by the intestine.
- Enzyme Therapy. Supplements that contain certain enzymes will be given to replace enzymes that are not absorbed by the body properly.