Steatorrhea is a clinical condition in which there is poor absorption of fats in the digestion process. This causes the person to defecate very greasy stools, even with the presence of oil. In many cases, since the stools are soft and watery or foamy, it can be mistaken for diarrhea, but it has different symptoms. It can be a temporary condition, due to some type of diet or infection or something chronic due to some disease. It must be treated medically, since if it is due to a pancreatic or intestinal disease it can cause other problems. In this FastlyHealarticle we explain the causes, symptoms and treatment for steatorrhea.
Causes of steatorrhea
Steatorrhea is mainly the presence of fatty stools in bowel movements. It can be classified into three groups depending on the cause:
- Nutritional: when it is produced temporarily by a diet rich in fat.
- Because the pancreas does not absorb all the fat properly due to a lining that covers it.
- By the malfunction of the pancreas lipase, which is an enzyme that breaks down fat.
Considering these three conditions, the main causes of steatorrhea in adults can be:
Some high-fat diets make it difficult for the body to digest them well or synthesize them properly. The malabsorption of fat causes it to be present in the stool. Fatty foods like fish, nuts, jojoba oil, or potato chips can be difficult to digest in terms of fat. In some precooked or packaged foods, a substance known as olestra is added, which serves precisely to reduce its fat and calorie content while preserving its textures. However, the chemical structure that causes this to occur is difficult for the body to digest and can lead to fat in the stool, but it will be a misdiagnosis of malabsorption.
Liver damage or disease can cause a malfunction in the secretion of bile acids , which are compounds that help absorb fats during digestion. If bile acids are not secreted or not to the extent necessary, the fat will not be absorbed properly and will appear in the stool.
A tumor in the pancreas or its inflammation (pancreatitis) can cause steatorrhea. Swelling of this organ can cause damage to its function including the digestion of fats from food.
Jaundice is a condition characterized by a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes. This is because the blood contains more bilirubin than normal, caused by some liver damage. Jaundice can cause steatorrhea with yellowish stools.
It is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the digestive tract. Diarrhea is one of the most characteristic symptoms of this condition and can alter the absorption of fats by the intestine. In this case, steatorrhea occurs.
Cystic fibrosis is a disease in which the exocrine glands are malfunctioning and a mucosa forms around the lungs, digestive tract, and some other areas. It is a very serious and life-threatening disease. In this case, since some important organs are lined with mucosa, it is difficult for fats and other substances such as carbohydrates to be adequately absorbed, which can lead to steatorrhea.
Zollinger-Ellison syndrome causes tumors in the pancreas and small intestine, causing the hormone gastrin to increase stomach acid. An increase in acid in the stomach can cause problems such as peptic ulcers or even the malabsorption of fats, leading to steatorrhea.
The small intestine plays a very important role in digestion by doing most of it. Malabsorption syndrome is a series of conditions or symptoms that occur because the intestine cannot absorb nutrients from food. Some causes that can cause steatorrhea due to malabsorption syndrome are intolerances such as lactose or celiac disease, or conditions such as Whipple’s disease. Even some medications can cause malabsorption.
Celiac disease is a gluten intolerance that causes digestive problems, especially in the intestine. It produces alterations of the mucosa of the small intestine, which affects the absorption of fats in digestion, causing the stool to have excess oil.
Whipple’s disease is a rare condition also known as intestinal lipodystrophy. It is a rare and infectious disease caused by bacteria. It is characterized, as its name suggests, by intestinal lipodystrophy, which is the accumulation of fats in the intestinal lymphatic system and causes malabsorption, in addition to other symptoms such as arthritis. The malabsorption of fats by the intestine causes excess fat stools to be produced.
Certain weight loss medications and pills
Some medications can also contribute to intestinal malabsorption, such as those used to treat obesity.
Symptoms of steatorrhea
Steatorrhea will carry some symptoms or others depending on the cause for which it occurs. The general symptoms that it can cause, whatever the cause, are the following:
- Large, very fatty and smelly stools.
- In many cases there may be the presence of drops of oil in the stool itself or even be expelled through the anus.
- A common factor is hard-to-clean floating stools.
- Weight loss can occur due to poor absorption of nutrients or even fatigue.
- It can easily be confused with diarrhea since, like this, it also causes fecal incontinence.
The color of the stools varies, they can be yellow if it is jaundice, although they are usually pale or gray in cases of liver disorders.
In addition, symptoms associated with the digestive tract may occur, such as abdominal pain or cramps, abdominal bloating, bloating or even nausea.
Diagnosis of steatorrhea
To find out if it is steatorrhea caused by any cause, a test known as Sudan III is used , which determines the presence of fats in the stool. Steatorrhea is confirmed when, for example, a patient takes about 100 grams of fat and expels an amount of 7 grams through the stool.
Other tests such as urinalysis, blood samples, or D-xylose absorption may also be done in conjunction with the above test. This will determine if there is another disorder that may be causing this condition.
Treatment of steatorrhea
The treatment of steatorrhea will depend in any case on the cause that caused it. On many occasions, a change in diet will be required , reducing the amount of fat. Furthermore, alcohol will also be suppressed as it can cause severe liver damage.
Enteric coatings can also be used, which are capsules that do not release the substance inside until they reach the small intestine. This can be done when there is a lack of fat digestive enzymes.
This article is merely informative, at FastlyHeal .com we do not have the power to prescribe medical treatments or make any type of diagnosis. We invite you to see a doctor in the case of presenting any type of condition or discomfort.
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I am a Surgeon with a diploma in comprehensive ultrasound and surgical care residency, an area I am specializing in. During the exercise of my profession, I have realized the need for patients to know the diseases they suffer, and I can tell you that a large part of their complications is due to a lack of information. Being a health web writer allows me to transmit my experience, without borders, to all those readers eager for knowledge, educate them in the prevention of diseases and promote a healthy lifestyle.