Gastrointestinal Conditions: Malabsorption Syndromes

FP Essent. 2022 May:516:31-37.


Malabsorption syndromes are a heterogenous group of conditions that can cause distressing gastrointestinal symptoms. Celiac disease is most common and is triggered by exposure to gluten. Tissue transglutaminase immunoglobulin A is the diagnostic test of choice; management is gluten avoidance. Lactose intolerance is caused by absence or declining levels of the enzyme lactase. Diagnosis typically is clinical, but breath tests can be helpful if diagnosis is uncertain. Management is lactose avoidance. Bile acid malabsorption results in unabsorbed bile acids in the colon, leading to diarrhea. The 75selenium homotaurocholic acid test is most accurate but is not widely available. Therefore, a trial of bile acid sequestrants (typically cholestyramine) is a reasonable alternative when the diagnosis is suspected. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is caused by decreased production of pancreatic enzymes, typically occurring in patients with preexisting pancreatic damage from alcohol, surgery, radiation, diabetes, or cystic fibrosis. Diagnosis involves fecal fat or fecal elastase-1 tests. Management is pancreatic enzyme replacement. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth is caused by pathologic overgrowth of the small bowel microbiome. Diagnosis is by jejunal biopsy or, more commonly, breath tests. Antibiotics (typically rifaximin) are the initial management. Other options include dietary changes, probiotics, and prokinetic drugs.

MeSH terms

  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Celiac Disease* / complications
  • Celiac Disease* / diagnosis
  • Celiac Disease* / therapy
  • Glutens
  • Humans
  • Lactose Intolerance* / complications
  • Lactose Intolerance* / diagnosis
  • Lactose Intolerance* / microbiology
  • Malabsorption Syndromes* / diagnosis
  • Malabsorption Syndromes* / etiology
  • Malabsorption Syndromes* / therapy


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Glutens