Prolonged Fasting Induces Histological and Ultrastructural Changes in the Intestinal Mucosa That May Reduce Absorption and Revert after Enteral Refeeding

Nutrients. 2023 Dec 30;16(1):128. doi: 10.3390/nu16010128.


Background: Malnutrition is usual in patients referred for endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG). Refeeding syndrome is rarely observed in PEG-fed patients, which could possibly be associated with reduced absorption induced by prolonged starvation. Objective: In patients submitted to PEG after a significant period of fasting, the present study aims to: 1. evaluate the histological/ultrastructural initial changes in the intestinal mucosa, potentially associated with reduced absorption, and 2. assess if these changes could reverse with enteral refeeding. Methods: The present study is an observational, prospective, controlled study. Adult patients with ingestion below 50% of daily needs for at least one month and/or diagnosis of malnutrition were enrolled. Duodenal biopsies were taken at baseline and after 3-6 months of PEG feeding, which then underwent histological/ultrastructural analysis. Random healthy individuals were used as controls. Results: A total of 30 patients (16 men/14 women) aged 67.1 ± 13.5 years were included. Malnutrition was found in 40% of patients. Approximately 14 patients completed follow-up during both periods (46.7%). At baseline: duodenal mucosal atrophy was evident in three patients (10%); the median villi length (MVL) was 0.4 mm (0.25-0.6 mm), with it being shorter than the controls, which was 0.6 mm (0.4-0.7 mm) (p = 0.006); ultrastructural changes included focal shortening, bending, and disruption of enterocyte microvilli, the presence of citoplasmatic autophagic vacuoles, dilation and vesiculation of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, and the presence of dilated intercellular spaces with basement membrane detachment. After refeeding, most patients displayed normal histology (92.9%) and increase MVL (p < 0.001), ultrastructural changes disappeared, and enterocytes resumed a normal appearance, although retaining scarce, small, dense bodies in apical regions from the evolution of previous autophagy. Conclusions: Prolonged fasting induces histological and ultrastructural changes in the intestinal mucosa that may reflect impaired absorption in the early post-PEG period. These changes were reverted after refeeding with enteral nutrition.

Keywords: PEG; duodenal mucosa; histology; malnutrition; ultrastructure.

Publication types

  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Duodenum
  • Fasting*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa
  • Male
  • Malnutrition* / etiology
  • Prospective Studies

Grants and funding

This work was financed by national funds from the FCT—Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., under the project UIDB/04585/2020. This work was also partially supported by a research grant obtained from the Portuguese Gastroenterology Society. The study sponsors were not involved in the study design, data collection, analysis of data, or interpretation of the data.