Normal intestinal absorption of nutrients requires efficient luminal mixing to deliver solute to the brush border. Lacking such mixing, the buildup of thick unstirred layers over the mucosa markedly retards absorption of rapidly transported compounds. Using a technique based on the kinetics of maltose hydrolysis, we measured the unstirred layer thickness of the jejunum of normal subjects and patients with celiac disease, as well as that of the normal rat. The jejunum of humans and rats was perfused with varying maltose concentrations, and the apparent Michaelis constant (Km) and maximal velocity (Vmax) of maltose hydrolysis were determined from double-reciprocal plots. The true Km of intestinal maltase was determined on mucosal biopsies. Unstirred layer thickness was calculated from the in vivo Vmax and apparent Km and the in vitro Km of maltase. The average unstirred layer thickness of 11 celiac patients (170 micron) was seven times greater than that of 3 controls (25 micron). The unstirred layer of each celiac exceeded that of the controls. A variety of factors could account for the less efficient luminal stirring observed in celiacs. Although speculative, villous contractility could be an important stirring mechanism that would be absent in celiacs with villous atrophy. This speculation was supported by the finding of a relatively thick unstirred layer (mean: 106 micron) in rats, an animal that lacks villous contractility. Because any increase in unstirred layer slows transport of rapidly absorbed compounds, poor stirring appears to represent a previously unrecognized defect that could contribute to malabsorption in celiac disease and, perhaps, in other intestinal disorders.