Although clinical studies suggest enteral, as opposed to parenteral, feeding lowers morbidity and mortality rates following severe trauma and after sepsis, it is unknown whether gut absorptive capacity (GAC) is indeed maintained under such conditions. To study this, GAC was determined in patients with blunt trauma (n = 8) and with sepsis (n = 11) by the 1-hour D-xylose absorption test. Excluded were patients with ileus, nasogastric output of more than 600 mL/24 hours, or residual gastric content of more than 25 mL after the D-xylose test. Trauma patients (ISS 8-14) and patients with intra-abdominal sepsis had an initial D-xylose test within 24 to 48 hours of admission, at 72 to 96 hours, and then weekly until D-xylose absorption had returned to normal. D-xylose (25 g in 200 mL water) was given via nasogastric tube to patients and orally to healthy volunteers (controls: N = 8). Results show that GAC was depressed at 24 to 96 hours in both groups but returned to normal by 1 to 3 weeks after trauma or resolution of sepsis. Thus (1) gut absorptive capacity was severely depressed early after trauma and after the onset of sepsis; and (2) the 1-hour D-xylose absorption test provided a simple, quantitative assessment of GAC in critically ill patients. Hence, therapeutic agents that restore gut absorptive capacity may be useful for further reducing morbidity and mortality rates following trauma or the onset of sepsis. © 1994 by Williams & Wilkins.