Sweet Potatoes, Sleep Aid, Chemicals and Parkinson’s Disease, Needlesticks

By Mary Jane Dittmar

One of the dinner staples of Thanksgiving Day is the sweet potato. This tuber is filled with antioxidants, carotenoids such as beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A, sometimes referred to as “Provitamin A”), and vitamin C. Potatoes with red color also provide lycopene. Antioxidants and carotenoids help to prevent damage to our cells and cell membranes. According to George Mataljan of the George Mataljan Foundation, “Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes may be one of nature’s unsurpassed sources of beta-carotene. Some recent studies have shown that sweet potatoes raise blood levels of vitamin A.” In addition, sweet potatoes contain anti-inflammatory and blood sugar-regulating nutrients. They also provide manganese, copper, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, potassium, and iron.

The nutrient value of the sweet potato makes it a good diet choice year round. Mataljan suggests choosing sweet potatoes that are firm and do not have any cracks, bruises, or soft spots. Store them in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place. Keep the sweet potatoes loose (not in a plastic bag; if desired, place them in a brown paper bag with multiple air holes punched in it) and store them in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated cupboard away from heat sources. 

If the potatoes are organically grown, you can eat their skin, says Mateljan. Peel conventionally grown sweet potatoes, since sometimes the skin is treated with dye or wax. If cooking the sweet potato whole, peel it after cooking. Cook the potatoes immediately after peeling or cutting them to prevent oxidation, or keep them covered with water in a bowl until you are ready to cook them.

Cooking:  Mataljan says that several studies have shown that boiling is an effective cooking method for sweet potatoes. Multiple studies have shown that the beta-carotene from sweet potatoes is better absorbed when foods containing fat are eaten with the sweet potatoes. Mateljan says only 3-5 grams of fat are needed. One study showed that stir-frying in oil can enhance the bioavailability of the sweet potato’s beta-carotene. Mataljan advocates “Healthy Steaming” of sweet potatoes for maximum nutrition and flavor and adding a small amount of fat, such as a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, after the sweet potatoes have been cooked. Steaming, Mataljan notes, avoids submersing the sweet potato in boiling water, which could result in the loss of water-soluble nutrients. To “healthy steam” sweet potatoes, fill the bottom of a steamer pot with two inches of water. When the water has come to a rapid boil, add the potatoes, which have been cut into one-half-inch slices, into the water, and steam for seven minutes. Toss with our Mediterranean Dressing and top with your favorite optional ingredients; see details at 7-Minute Sweet Potatoes. Detailed information on the sweet potato is at www.whfoods.org (Food of the Week Nov. 14-20).

Tai-Chi as Sleep Aid

We have all experienced times when we cannot seem to get our optimal amount of sleep. Richard Foxx, MD, suggests that tai chi exercises may help us to de-stress and obtain more restful sleep. Tai chi, he explains, can soothe our mind and help stretch and tone our muscles. Other benefits of tai chi are that it is relatively inexpensive and can be done also by people with health issues. 

In one study, researchers found that tai chi exercise improved significantly the sleep quality of residents in an elderly care home. The participants, who were 65 years of age and older, performed 20 minutes of tai chi exercises, three times a week. 

According to Dr. Foxx, tai chi might also improve digestion, lower blood pressure, and help stabilize blood sugar. He recommends getting some guidance at the beginning of the program to ensure that the movements are done properly. Doctors Health Press [doctorshealthpress@lombardipublishing.com].

Chemicals TCE and PERC Linked to Parkinson’s Risk

Researchers in a recent study** have discovered a significant link between the chemical solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PERC) and Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is caused by the loss of brain cells that produce a molecule called dopamine. The primary symptoms are tremor, stiffness, slowed movement, and impaired balance. Progression of the disease may cause difficulty in walking, speaking, and completing other activities of daily living. Although genes play a role in Parkinson’s disease, not all people with these mutations develop Parkinson’s, suggesting that environmental factors also contribute to the likelihood of developing the disease.

The study evaluated only occupational chemical exposure; the association with job categories tended toward significance only for the industrial machinery repairer and industrial worker categories. However, these chemicals are found outside industrial settings as well. PERC, for example, is the leading chemical used in garment dry cleaning. TCE is the most frequently reported organic groundwater contaminant and was once used as general anesthetic and coffee decaffeinating agent. It is still used widely as a metal degreasing agent.

Study leaders say that the findings of this research “must be replicated in additional populations with well-characterized exposure histories.” Tanner notes that while the association between chemical exposure and Parkinson’s is strong, one limitation of the research is the small number of individuals studied.

This is another reminder of how crucial it is for firefighters and other responders to protect themselves against exposure to chemicals that might be in the smoke of all fires, residential and industrial, no matter how small they may appear to be on arrival. Additional information about Parkinson’s disease is at  www.ninds.nih.gov/PD. The entire News Release is available at www.nih.gov/news/health/nov2011/ninds-14.htm.

Reminder: Protect yourself against “needlesticks.” Read more about accidental needlesticks and a program from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that can reduce these injuries substantially at NIOSH Science Blog.


Goldman SM, et al. “Solvent Exposures and Parkinson Disease Risk in Twins,” Annals of Neurology, published online November 14, 2011.


Mary Jane Dittmar is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.



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