Spend £50+ and save 5%. Use code MULTI5 at checkout
PatchWorks logo

Malabsorption – where are the nutrients that you eat ending up?

by Laura Palmer

As you get older it’s not uncommon to turn to supplements to support your health and help counter the challenges that aging can bring. Recent research by the Food Standards Agency showed that 54% of over 65-year-olds took fish oil to ease stiff joints and arthritis symptoms. But if you’ve ever asked your doctor if supplements are necessary to feel your best, the answer is often ‘no’. Many practitioners suggest most of us should be able to get the vitamins and minerals we need from a healthy and well-balanced diet. Eat your 5 a day, plenty of fibre, some nutritious protein, and wholegrain carbs, et voila: you’ve smashed it. Everything your body needs to thrive ticked off the list. But what about if you’re suffering from malabsorption?

Millions of people have an exemplary diet, but don’t reap the health benefits you’d expect. And often this is because many of the nutrients they’ve dutifully consumed each day haven’t made it through the gut. Instead, they have ended up down the toilet – quite literally!

When the good stuff doesn’t get to where it should…

Known as malabsorption syndrome, this is what happens when your intestine has trouble absorbing macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). And it’s more common than you might think. Did you know the malabsorption of simple carbohydrates affects about 1 in 4 people in Europe? Just think of all those wasted hours eating vegetables you’re not keen on – gah!

Malabsorption is also more common as you get older (more on this later). So if you’re over 65, constantly feeling tired and suffering from tummy troubles. Or if your blood tests keep coming back showing vitamin or mineral deficiencies, malabsorption could well be the culprit.

But what exactly is malabsorption? Why is it more common in older people? How do you know if you have it? And what steps can you take to get the right nutrients back into your body quickly?

What is malabsorption?

Noticed how sleepy you feel after finishing a big meal? That’s because A LOT is going on inside your body. The first stage of digestion begins when the enzymes in your saliva start to break down food into smaller parts that your body can absorb. The chewed-up food travels through your stomach, and then your small and large intestine. Along the way, various enzymes and bile acid help free up the fats and vitamins from your food. Then, once they reach your small intestine, lymph vessels absorb the vitamins, before making their way into your bloodstream.

Malabsorption occurs when this process is interrupted and the food isn’t broken down properly. This can happen for lots of reasons. You might not have enough digestive enzymes or be producing the right amount of bile acid. There could be an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut. Or the movement in your small or large intestine could be faster than usual. Different medications can also interrupt how well your body absorbs nutrients, as can common chronic health conditions like diabetes and hyperthyroidism.

All sorts of factors play havoc with your digestion and prevent the release of the nutrients from the food you’ve eaten. But the end result is the same: the good stuff is lost along with the waste products your body wants to get rid of. You’re literally flushing away many of the essential nutrients you need to feel well.

How do I know if I have malabsorption?

Initially, the symptoms of malabsorption can be quite vague. You’re tired, lacking in energy, or just feel a bit ‘off’. You might get a sore tongue, or the corners of your mouth could crack. It’s also common to experience gastric problems, such as regularly feeling bloated, recurrent diarrhoea, stomach cramps, and excess wind.

Another telltale sign of malabsorption is if your poo isn’t as it should be. It’s a bit of a taboo, but keeping an eye on what ends up down the loo is one of the best indications of how healthy your bowel function is. If your stools are very pale, or white in colour, or they have a greasy texture – it’s likely you’re suffering from malabsorption.

The long-term effects:

Once you’ve been suffering from malabsorption for a while, things can get more serious. You might start to lose weight, your muscles can begin to waste, or you could become anaemic.  If you cut yourself, wounds could take forever to heal.

Long term malabsorption can also weaken your bones. This can cause bone pain and make it more likely you’ll break something if you fall. A real worry as you age, considering that once you hit 50, bone breakdown outpaces bone formation. This means bone loss often accelerates anyway, even without malabsorption in the mix.

How can you test for malabsorption?

If any of the above sounds familiar, try keeping a symptoms diary for a few weeks and then head to your GP. It’s likely your Dr will then order blood tests, to check the protein levels in your blood, and find out if you have any deficiencies.

You might be asked to carry out a stool test, to detect whether you have excess fat in your poo – a sure sign of malabsorption. You could even be referred for imaging tests to check out the function and structure of your digestive system.

Is malabsorption more likely to affect you as you get older?

The short answer is, yes. Mainly because many of the root causes of malabsorption, like not having enough digestive enzymes, or bile acid become more common as you get older. For example Hypochlorhydria, (where your body doesn’t make enough hydrochloric acid to break down your food) is most frequently found in people over the age of 65.

The older you are, it’s also more likely you’ll be taking medications like Cholestyramine (used to lower high cholesterol levels), or Colchicine (taken to treat gout). Both of which can disrupt your body’s enzyme and acid production.

Structural abnormalities of the bowel also increase dramatically as you age. Diverticulitis, a disease of the colon that can have a significant adverse effect on digestion, mainly affects the elderly. In fact, it’s present in 50–70% of over 80-year-olds.

How can you treat malabsorption?

The root causes behind malabsorption are so wide-ranging that the methods of treatment also vary hugely, depending on what’s causing the problem for you. It could be as simple as prescribing digestive enzymes for you to take, or more complex.

The good news? Once you know it’s malabsorption that’s affecting your health, you can top up the nutrients you’ve been missing, and start to feel better. And our patches are the ideal way to do this. Why? Firstly, the innovative dermal delivery through your skin means the nutrients are delivered directly into the bloodstream. Which means they bypass your digestive system altogether.

Secondly, patches deliver nutrients slowly, instead of in one large dose, which makes it much easier for your body to use them. The Multivitamin Plus Patch is a great place to start if your nutrient levels are generally low. Or look through your blood test results, find out what you’re deficient in and browse our patches. You’ll find essentials like iron, B12, and vitamin C, which malabsorption sufferers can often be lacking in.

Pop on a patch and you can feel confident the nutrients will get where they need to, regardless of what’s going on in your gut. No more wasting your time and money, and peace of mind that your body is getting the support it needs.