Disorders of absorption constitute a broad spectrum of conditions with multiple etiologies and varied clinical manifestations. Almost all of these clinical problems are associated with diminished intestinal absorption of one or more dietary nutrients and are often referred to as the malabsorption syndrome. This term is not ideal as it represents a pathophysiologic state, does not provide an etiologic explanation for the underlying problem, and should not be considered an adequate final diagnosis. The only clinical conditions in which absorption is increased are hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease, in which absorption of iron and copper, respectively, is elevated.
Most malabsorption syndromes are associated with steatorrhea, an increase in stool fat excretion to >7% of dietary fat intake. Some malabsorption disorders are not associated with steatorrhea: primary lactase deficiency, a congenital absence of the small-intestinal brush border disaccharidase enzyme lactase, is associated with lactose “malabsorption,” and pernicious anemia is associated with a marked decrease in intestinal absorption of cobalamin (vitamin B12) due to an absence of gastric parietal-cell intrinsic factor, which is required for cobalamin absorption.
Disorders of absorption must be included in the differential diagnosis of diarrhea (Chap. 42). First, diarrhea is frequently associated with and/or is a consequence of the diminished absorption of one or more dietary nutrients. The diarrhea may be secondary either to the intestinal process that is responsible for the steatorrhea or to steatorrhea per se. Thus, celiac disease (see below) is associated with both extensive morphologic changes in the small-intestinal mucosa and reduced absorption of several dietary nutrients; in contrast, the diarrhea of steatorrhea is the result of the effect of nonabsorbed dietary fatty acids on intestinal (usually colonic) ion transport. For example, oleic and ricinoleic acids (a bacterially hydroxylated fatty acid that is also the active ingredient in castor oil, a widely used laxative) induce active colonic Cl ion secretion, most likely secondary to increasing intracellular Ca. In addition, diarrhea per se may result in mild steatorrhea (<11 g of fat excretion while on a 100-g fat diet). Second, most patients will indicate that they have diarrhea, not that they have fat malabsorption. Third, many intestinal disorders that have diarrhea as a prominent symptom (e.g., ulcerative colitis, traveler’s diarrhea secondary to an enterotoxin produced by Escherichia coli) do not necessarily have diminished absorption of any dietary nutrient.
Diarrhea as a symptom (i.e., when the term is used by patients to describe their bowel movement pattern) may reflect a decrease in stool consistency, an increase in stool volume, an increase in number of bowel movements, or any combination of these three changes. In contrast, diarrhea as a sign is a quantitative increase in stool water or weight of >200–225 mL or g per 24 h when a Western-type diet is consumed. Individuals consuming a diet with higher-fiber content may normally have a stool weight of up to 400 g/24 h. Thus, the clinician must clarify what an individual patient means by diarrhea. Some 10% of patients referred to gastroenterologists for further evaluation of unexplained diarrhea do not have an increase in stool water when this variable is determined quantitatively. Such patients may have small, frequent, somewhat loose bowel movements with stool ...