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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Are we becoming oversaturated?

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 5:25 p.m. MDT

I don’t know about you, but I am saturated. Apparently many aren’t. Money burns and causes society to stir the pot that much more. The excitement keeps coming. We have become a nation of saturated fats.

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Saturation is a phenomenon of the physical world.

Chemistry uses the word to describe when a solution is so filled with a solute that the substance can no longer be dissolved in the liquid. It is the point where a liquid can't take another atom.

In biology, saturation in one form is the description of the percentage of elements connected to receptors on a cell. Receptors are like locks, and the substrate is the key. If every lock or bonding site is occupied, then we say the protein or carrier is totally saturated.

During a respiratory infection of influenza, or RSV in babies, the tiny tubes of the lungs, the bronchioles, swell and fill with copious mucous. With the passages blocked, the child gets less air into the distal alveoli and, hence, less oxygen to the blood. The hemoglobin is not fully saturated.

When that occurs, we have to supply additional oxygen. With more oxygen, the saturation goes up. A probe on the finger or toe measures this by the redness of the blood. The redder the red blood cells, the higher the oxygen saturation.

The food industry throws around words like saturated or polyunsaturated fats as if we all knew what they are saying. In the case of fats, saturated means there are no spaces left on the carbon backbone. Hydrogen atoms or other attachments take up the parking spots.

Polyunsaturated means hydrogen is missing at many places along the carbon chain. In those spots, nature makes a double bond that connects carbon to another carbon. (Don't worry: There is no quiz at the end of the column.) The more double bonds, the more poly the fat. When we are down to one, it is monounsaturated, like olive oil. The less the fat is saturated, the more it is liquid at room temperature.

Saturated can also describe an emotional state. Most of us are becoming saturated in our personal lives. Information floods and overflows onto everything. There is just too much to absorb.

Oversaturation is not good. If one were to twirl the dial on the oxygen flow and get a baby’s saturation up to 100 percent, the body would not deliver more “O's” to the rest of the body. Only so much can be absorbed into the tissues.

Likewise, put too much salt or sugar into a flask of water, and the crystals fall to the bottom of the glass. There is too much.

Commercials saturate the airwaves, exhorting us to buy this or order that. It doesn’t matter that we, as a nation and as families, are long past the saturation point of having no money to spend. However, stirring the water allows more to be absorbed. The ads stir us to go out and buy, and fear prompts us to build more expensive weapons.

The buzz is on all the time. Popular culture, the Internet and celebrity obsession never stop. Information saturation is to a point of pain. We have gone past the point where more is better. Our minds are filled; our patience is at its end; our decency is drowning. How much more can we bear?

The brain acts as a heated and agitated vessel. If one pours a mound of sugar into a cold pot of water, most of the sugar won’t dissolve. Add some heat and motion, and all the granules disappear. Our brains are the same; if we get agitated and all fired up, we can take a whole lot more.

I don’t know about you, but I am saturated. Apparently many aren’t. Money burns and causes society to stir the pot that much more. The excitement keeps coming. We have become a nation of saturated fats.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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