Health: Should I drink coffee?

One of the most controversial subjects in medicine, it seems, is whether even milk is good for adults.

Coffee with milk 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Coffee with milk 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I had a bad cold and gave up my daily one-or-two-cups-of-coffee-a-day habit because I like coffee only if I add milk. As milk causes phlegm in my throat, I stopped drinking both until I recovered from the cold. Now I wonder whether to go back to drinking coffee. I know coffee has some health benefits and can also cause problems. Can you tell me, on balance, whether it’s better to go without coffee or to drink it in moderation? And while we’re on the subject, do adults need to drink milk like children do?
N.H., Jerusalem
Dr. Menachem Oberbaum, director of the Center for Integrative-Complementary Medicine at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, replies:
I will answer your question on milk first: Should adult human beings drink milk? This is one of the most controversial subjects in medicine. While conventional medicine regards milk as being comprised of very healthy protein fats, carbohydrates, vitamins (A, B, C and D) and important minerals (calcium, zinc and phosphorus), complementary medicine is rather antagonistic and some practitioners even carry an all-out war against milk consumption.
They argue, among other things, that the human is the only mammal that continues to consume milk and dairy products after infancy. This would imply that milk is unnecessary and most probably harmful. Some clinical studies have also produced controversial results: While some claim, for example, that drinking milk leads to weight loss, others show the opposite.
One of the claims against milk consumption is that it produces phlegm in the throat. This claim was made even in ancient literature. The Roman physician Claudius Galenus and our own medieval sage and physician Maimonides recommended to patients suffering from lung diseases that they avoid drinking milk. In traditional Chinese medicine, milk is regarded as a phlegm-producing food. But clinical studies examining this claim showed that milk does not increase phlegm production in patients who are not sensitive to milk. Patients with a sensitivity to milk will, however, react to it with an increased production of phlegm.
The conclusion of the above is that persons who are not sensitive to milk or milk proteins can consume milk and dairy products without any worry. In addition, people who are moderately sensitive to milk can use milk, especially as a supplement to coffee or in the form of dairy products like yogurt.
Even if these people produce some phlegm, they need not worry, as the condition is reversible and, in the worst case, it will cease within a short time.
Only persons who are very allergic to milk should avoid it completely.
Coffee is the most popular beverage – after water – in the world, and its trade exceeds $10 billion. However, since caffeine was discovered as a stimulant in the 19th century, the use of this beverage was viewed by medicine with suspicion.
Some researchers assumed that because it is a stimulant, coffee can lead to addiction. Others warned patients who suffer from high blood pressure not to drink it and recommended that people with sleep problems avoid it as well. Coffee drinking was regarded as a “habit,” like cigarette smoking, and many smokers lit up while drinking coffee, thus coffee drinking was harmed by this association in people’s minds.
When it became clear that smoking is very harmful, some thought that coffee drinking should be banned as well.
Coffee was “rehabilitated” in recent decades as studies came to the surprising conclusion that not only does it not harm, but coffee is also beneficial to health. Clinical studies have shown that those who drink up to four cups a day suffer less from high blood pressure and diabetes compared with a control group that avoided coffee. It was shown to reduce the risks some of types of cancer, Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms and Alzheimer’s disease.
Moreover, coffee ameliorates oxidative stress, which is responsible for damaging biological systems. These health benefits were not observed among people drinking decaffeinated coffee, whose caffeine is removed by various chemical means.
But coffee drinking also has the potential to harm, as the intake of coffee – especially the unfiltered type – has contributed significantly to the increase in the blood fats triglycerides and cholesterol, posing a possible threat to the cardiovascular function and and increasing the risk of stroke. Studies suggest that pregnant women or those with postmenopausal problems should avoid excessive consumption of coffee because it may interfere with the functioning of oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy pills.
So what should you do? As always, as Maimonides advised, follow the path of moderation. Moderate consumption of coffee can be beneficial to health, but over-consumption can be harmful. 
Rx for Readers welcomes queries from readers about medical problems. Experts will answer those we find most interesting.
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