Comparing and Contrasting Different Types of Malabsorption
Malabsorption typically means the failure of your gastrointestinal tract – usually the small intestine – to absorb a particular substance or substances from the foods you eat. These substances can be macronutrients, like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, or micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals.
Just as there are many types of malabsorption, there are also many potential causes, including damage to the intestinal wall, congenital defects, infections, diseases of the gallbladder or liver, medications, or other conditions, like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and even cystic fibrosis. Symptoms of malabsorption vary and can range from chronic diarrhea to gas and bloating to greasy stools.
Understanding the Digestive Process
To understand the different types of malabsorption, you must first understand what happens after you eat a meal. After you eat, food is broken down into small, simpler substances that can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
For example, when your body digests protein, it breaks the protein into its elemental form of amino acids. When your body digests fats, the fat is broken down into short-chain fatty acids. Lastly, the digestion of carbohydrates breaks starches into simple molecules of sugar known as glucose. If your body is unable to break down any one of these macronutrients, malabsorption will occur.
Types of Malabsorption
Now that you know the basics, let’s dive deeper into the different types of malabsorption: what they are, why they occur, and what symptoms they might cause.
Perhaps the most commonly known malabsorption is lactose malabsorption, better known as “lactose intolerance.” For those of you with lactose intolerance, your body lacks the enzyme known as “lactase,” which allows you to digest lactose. This malabsorption can cause symptoms such as gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
If you have lactose intolerance, you should limit or avoid dairy products containing lactose. Instead, you should consume calcium-rich, lactose-free, or low-lactose products like hard cheeses, almond milk, or lactose-free cow’s milk. You can also take an over-the-counter lactase supplement to alleviate symptoms.
Fructose is a simple sugar that naturally occurs in many foods, but it is also an added ingredient to some processed foods. Your body has an enzyme that breaks down fructose. Although rare, some of you have a hereditary condition in which you lack this enzyme and are unable to digest fructose.
Not all cases of fructose malabsorption are hereditary. Non-hereditary causes of fructose malabsorption include inflammation and gut bacteria imbalances. Symptoms of this malabsorption include nausea, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. If you have fructose intolerance, fructose must be limited or avoided.
Sucrose malabsorption – also known as “sugar malabsorption” – occurs when your body is unable to break down sucrose (sugar). Sucrose is a disaccharide, which is two sugar molecules bonded together. These two sugar molecules are fructose and glucose.
Before absorption, your body must break the bond between the sugar molecules using the enzyme sucrase. When your body lacks functioning forms of the enzyme needed to break the bond of these sugars, you are diagnosed with a disorder known as Congenital Sucrase-Isomaltose Deficiency (CSID), more commonly known as Sucrose Intolerance caused by CSID.
Symptoms of Sucrose Intolerance caused by CSID can include chronic diarrhea, gas and bloating, and abdominal pain. If you have CSID, you should eat a low-sucrose diet to minimize or avoid symptoms. Pharmaceutical therapy is also available to treat CSID.
Fat malabsorption is a condition that results in the limited ability of your body to absorb fat from the gastrointestinal tract. The possible causes of fat malabsorption include the pancreas not producing enough enzymes (pancreatic insufficiency), bile acid deficiency due to liver disease, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Symptoms of fat malabsorption include steatorrhea (fatty stools), nausea, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
As you can see from these descriptions, malabsorption typically occurs due to one or more malfunctions that affect digestion and absorption from the small intestine. It is quite possible to have a malabsorption of a macronutrient like carbohydrates, fat, or proteins or a malabsorption of a micronutrient like vitamins and minerals. While each malabsorption is different, many of the symptoms can manifest in the same way: gas and bloating, chronic diarrhea, and abdominal pain. If you have these symptoms and are concerned that you may have a malabsorption of vital nutrients, including sucrose or other nutrients, contact your physician.
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