Definition of Steatorrhea
Steatorrhea is not a disease but symptoms associated with mal-absorption of digestive tract. Steatorrhea is characterized through fat that is found in faecal material. Presence of fat in stool causes oily appearance and is able to drift in water. Acute infection in the gut wall or oil rich diet can cause temporary steatorrhea. Chronic condition may occur due to persistent malfunction of gastrointestinal organs.
Picture 1 – White Fatty Stool in Steatorrhoea
Symptoms of Steatorrhea
The usual symptoms which are abnormal in steatorrhea are:
- Foul smelled defecation
- Frothy-oily texture of faecal material
- Stool can float in water due to high fatty content
- Pale coloured faeces
- Bulk loose faeces
Steatorrhea itself is a symptom of digestive tract disorder and the following associated symptoms helps to evaluate the condition.
- Stomach spasm
- Inflammation in the abdominal region
- Colour of the stool may be red, black or tarry due to presence of blood
- Loose motion
- Nausea associated with vomiting
Other associated organ can also provides symptoms which may indicate steatorrhea
- Dark coloured urine
- Susceptibility towards infection is increased
- Skin irritation
- Unexpected weight decrease
- Yellowish skin, nails and eye
Life threatening symptoms which need immediate medical assistance
- Increased pulse rate
- Congestion in chest
- Breathing difficulties
- Increased body temperature more than 1010 F.
- Abdominal muscles become rigid
- Sudden severe uncontrollable stomach spasm
Causes of Steatorrhea
Dietary changes or infection in the intestinal wall may causes steatorrhea though not life threatening condition but last for few weeks through dietary control or subside of infection can relieve symptoms.
Other possible causes which need proper medical concern are the mal-absorption of the dietary fat in the gastrointestinal tract. The main digestive organs which actively participate in fat absorption are liver, pancreas and intestine. Liver release bile and bile break fats into fat globules and helps to produce emulsion. The digestive enzyme pancreatic lipase secreted from pancreas also helps in fat degradation. Microvilli present in the intestinal wall helps to absorb the essential fat content supplied by diet. Any malfunctioning in these organs causes steatorrhea.
- Bile release may get hampered due to obstruction in biliary pathway and causes increased bilirubin in blood which is termed as jaundice.
- Due to any degenerative condition in gallbladder or in case of stone formation, steatorrhea can occur.
- Deficiency of pancreatic lipase occurs due to congenital disorder or any other pancreatic ailment including rare cases of cystic fibrosis.
- Ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and gluten insensitivity causes celiac disease. These all degenerative diseases cause intestinal wall disorder and they destroy microvilli and hinder the fat absorption.
- Cancerous development in the liver, bile duct, pancreas and small intestine causes steatorrhea.
- Diet rich with intact nutty materials or fish oil causes steatorrhea. Intestine is unable to absorb jojoba oil (natural fat obtained from plant source).
- Medicines like orlistat decrease the secretion of some digestive enzymes which are responsible for fat digestion
- Fat supplements causes Steatorrhea
Treatment of Steatorrhea
Important measure to treat Steatorrhea is to diagnose the actual cause and treat the primary disease. Treatment is recommended depending upon the diagnosed disease condition. The medications which are prescribed are mainly for controling the underlying diseases which also manage steatorrhea. It is advisable that only clinician can diagnosed the exact cause which creates steatorrhea, so better to consult with physician and then only take medicines. In general, non therapeutic measures can also control steatorrhea and they are:
Alteration in dietary intake:
In steatorrhea, the fats are not absorbed and get excreted via stool. Alteration in diet helps to control this symptom though whatever underlying cause is there for steatorrhea. It is understandable that if fat intake is less then chance of steatorrhea is less, so low fat diet is beneficial in case of steatorrhea.
If the steatorrhea is occur due to Celiac disease, then gluten free diet along with low fat content helps to give symptomatic relieve.
Vitamin B12 is very important for intestinal health. Vitamin B12 deficiency can causes mal-absorption of the fat. Addition of Vitamin B12 rich nutrients in diet helps to improve intestinal capacity and rectify the mal-absorption. Otherwise vitamin B12 supplements also recommended if it causes steatorrhea.
Steatorrhea also arises due to folic acid or iron deficiency which leads to anaemia. Supplements which able to manage folic acid or iron deficiency can also help to control the steatorrhea.
In case of pancreatitis, pancreatic enzymes replacement therapy or pancreatic enzymes supplements can reduce the risk steatorrhea.
Restriction of alcohol consumption
Regular alcohol consumption causes liver impairment and also causes degenerative condition in pancreas which later leads to liver cirrhosis or pancreatic damage leads to problematic fat digestion and symptomatic approach of these conditions is steatorrhea. Those who take regular consumption of alcohol, it is always advisable to exercise restriction and maintain the limit of consumption. A gradual control and restriction of alcohol consumption can positively help to limit the progression of those life threatening disease conditions and finally can provide enormous benefit in eliminating the chances of steatorrhea.