Are You Struggling with Malabsorption?
Are you actually absorbing the nutrients from the foods you eat? Malabsorption–or your gut being unable to properly absorb nutrients from your diet–may be more common than previously thought. And this evidence is only strengthened by the growing number of diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
There are many reasons that nutrient or fat absorption can be hindered in the body, but it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of malabsorption issues when working to improve any health issue. Let’s take a closer look at nutrient and fat absorption so you can understand what is going on with your digestive system…and gain some tips to get the most out of a healthy diet!
What is malabsorption?
You’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what might be more accurate is that you are what you digest and absorb. And if there’s one thing we now know, it’s that the food you eat doesn’t always get digested the way you intend.
Simply, malabsorption means your digestive system isn’t able to properly break down and absorb nutrients from the food you eat. Proper nutrient absorption is key to keeping your body feeling its best because you need dozens of specific nutrients to keep your body feeling its best. This includes important things like healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, as well as vitamins like B12, iron, and other minerals.
People with existing digestive issues, like IBS, Crohn’s disease, celiac, or GERD may be at an increased risk for malabsorption issues, but there are other factors that impact absorption as well (1).
An overgrowth of bad bacteria, low digestive enzymes, stress levels, certain medications, and health conditions can all play a role in your body’s ability to digest food properly. This means that even if you’re eating a healthy diet, the maximum benefit might be lost in the digestive process.
Don’t stress: Get to the root cause of your digestive issues now>>
How Your Body Absorbs Nutrients
To understand malabsorption, it’s important to have a better idea of how digestion works. In general, here’s the simple version: When you eat any food, it travels through your digestive system in a series of stages. First through your esophagus and into your stomach, where some digestive enzymes and stomach acid begin their process.
Then, it travels into the small intestine where really important work begins to happen. The majority of digestion and absorption occurs within the small intestine.
In the small intestine, bile from the gallbladder breaks down dietary fat so that it can be absorbed by the body. This also helps shuttle around vitamins like vitamin D and vitamin A, which need fats to be activated.
Proteins also get broken down into amino acids, where they perform necessary jobs like feeding healthy bacteria and your immune system. Once nutrient particles are small enough to fit between cells in your intestinal wall, they pass through those cells and into blood vessels that carry them throughout the rest of your body so every cell gets exactly what it needs to function properly.
If nutrient particles are not broken down properly in step one or if there isn’t enough bile secreted from your gallbladder for fat breakdown, your body can’t absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs.
So what happens? The unabsorbed nutrients travel through your intestinal tract until they get eliminated because your body can’t use them.
Trouble Digesting Fats
Fat malabsorption is a very similar process, but instead of nutrient particles, it’s fat that cannot be broken down by bile before being absorbed into the body. This could be as a result of a blockage such as a gallstone, or another underlying issue (2). This means essential fatty acids like omega-3s and other nutrients that depend on the proper absorption of fats, aren’t able to participate in intestinal absorption.
Certain vitamins are considered fat-soluble vitamins (like A, E, D, and K). This means they depend on the proper breakdown of fats by digestive enzymes and healthy bacteria in order to be used. If this doesn’t happen, your gut can’t absorb nutrients that depend on fat. Fat-soluble vitamins are crucial for brain health, hormone balance, energy production, immune function, and so much more (3).
Doctors believed fat malabsorption was an uncommon occurrence, but the growing number of digestive and diet-related diseases suggests otherwise (1).
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Why is nutrient absorption important?
There are many health problems that can occur when your digestive system can’t perform proper nutrient absorption, or you’re experiencing fat malabsorption.
If you’re not absorbing enough vitamins and minerals, it could lead to (3):
- immune system problems
- chronic fatigue
- mood changes
- hormone imbalance
- skin conditions like acne or eczema
- gastrointestinal disorders including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- nutrient imbalances in the body that contribute to chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes, or heart disease.
Vitamins and minerals depend on proper absorption to do their jobs, and there are several signs to look for that you might not be properly absorbing nutrients from your daily diet.
Signs You’re Not Absorbing Nutrients
- heart palpitations
- digestions issues after eating fatty foods
- hair loss
- brittle nails
- abnormal stools (oily, uncomfortable to pass)
- fluid retention or swelling
- muscle cramps, restless legs
- weight loss (or gain if there’s a problem with fat absorption)
If you have certain digestive diseases (Crohn’s, IBS, celiac, SIBO, or pancreatic conditions) you may be at increased risk of poor nutrient absorption.
Read more: 4 Ways to Improve Your Fat Digestion
Help Your Body Absorb Nutrients
Functional medicine and integrative medicine help get to the root cause of poor nutrient absorption. Whether it’s a question of gut health, dietary limitations, or an underlying health condition, integrative diagnostics, and functional therapies can help you restore the absorption of nutrients so it’s no longer an impediment in your wellness journey.
CentreSpringMD offers comprehensive testing to find out why you’re experiencing fat malabsorption, such as:
- Food sensitivity testing
- Gut function analysis
- Microbiome balance
- Fecal fat assessment
- Detection of underlying infections
- Pancreatic enzyme production
Functional medicine and integrative medicine practitioners will take a look at all aspects of your health — not just diet — and may use nutrient and fat absorption tests to identify nutrient deficiencies or imbalances in the body. Then, they will work with you on a personalized plan so that your digestive system can easily absorb these tiny-but-mighty nutrients. Integrative medicine doctors will also assess bile secretion from your gallbladder to support fat breakdown so there aren’t issues with nutrient or fat malabsorption.
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5 Easy Ways to Improve Nutrient Absorption
Take care of your gut
Approximately 1000 trillion gut bacteria are alive within the gastrointestinal tract keeping you healthy. These good bacteria do so by breaking down food items, fighting off pathogenic bacteria and yeasts, and helping to improve the absorption of certain nutrients. Your gut microbes are involved in hundreds of functions from how it metabolizes carrots to the complicated uptake of vitamin A. Pre- and probiotic-rich foods are beneficial for healthy gut bacteria.
Mix Your Foods Correctly
Eating raw or lightly cooked vegetables with healthy fats will improve your absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Eating raw vegetables, for example blending them or juicing, might reduce the absorption, even if there are nutrients present in your food. Eat vitamin C foods to enhance plant-based iron sources.
Pack in variety
Aim to eat an array of foods to get better absorption of vitamins, minerals, fats, and amino acids. Plant foods are often good sources of fiber to support digestive health, while quality proteins may increase important functions like iron absorption.
A high-quality multivitamin may help fill in the gaps in your healthy diet.
Feed the good bacteria
The good bacteria in your gut–collectively called your microbiome–need both pre-and probiotics to thrive. Prebiotic foods contain a special type of fiber that fuels healthy gut flora. These are mostly veggies like asparagus, garlic, or Jerusalem artichoke. You can also boost the number and diversity of healthy gut bacteria with probiotic foods. These are fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, yogurt, or fermented pickles. Good bacteria help absorb minerals like calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins that boost energy levels like B12.
Read more: Probiotics 101
Water plays an important role in digestion. Stay hydrated so your digestive tract can transport and break down nutrients better.
Are You Struggling with Symptoms of Malabsorption?
You may be eating a healthy diet and doing your best to avoid the common gut health culprits, but if you have malabsorption problems, it can still impact your ability to absorb nutrients from food. If you’re struggling with unexplained health issues or chronic fatigue, talk to your doctor about malabsorption and consider integrative testing. Malabsorption is often caused by inflammation in the digestive tract or an imbalance of good bacteria and should be addressed swiftly by a qualified provider.
At CentreSpringMD, a functional medicine doctor will work closely with you on an individualized plan to address the specific causes of malabsorption in order to improve nutrient status and overall wellness. If this sounds like something that applies to you or someone close to you, we encourage taking a moment to speak with a provider at CentreSpringMD today.