Amanda Tiberi, 23, was diagnosed with heartburn and a hiatal hernia when she was just 19, and thought she was doomed to a lifetime of pills and potential side effects. She was prescribed a daily dose of Nexium, but took matters into her own hands. Tiberi, a marketing coordinator who lives in Westchester, New York, cut back on foods that triggered her symptoms and began exercising and losing weight. She was soon able to give up the medication—and get back her life.

Courtesy of Amanda Tiberi

I have always struggled with digestion issues, but it was during my sophomore year of college that I started to experience serious heartburn. I would frequently have a burning feeling in my chest, or I would throw up after eating certain foods.

I ignored it at first, thinking it was just a little indigestion from something I ate. Eventually I saw a gastroenterologist and began self-medicating with over-the-counter drugs such as Tums—except I would need to take at least five tablets at once to make the burning dissipate. (The directions say to take only two to four at a time.)

One day, I had a pain so sharp in my upper stomach that I couldn't get off the bathroom floor. I finally realized my problem was serious. My parents immediately took me to the hospital, where my gastroenterologist decided I should have an endoscopy to check for damage to my stomach and esophagus.

During the procedure, a tiny camera attached to a thin, lighted tube was threaded down through my esophagus so my doctor could see what was going on. He diagnosed me with a hiatal hernia: This meant that part of my stomach was bulging up through my diaphragm and into my chest. This is not that uncommon, but it is not typically found in 19-year-old-girls—part of the reason I was not diagnosed sooner. I was shocked and terrified that heartburn had harmed my body at such a young age.

When my doctor saw the hernia, he immediately prescribed Nexium, a proton pump inhibitor that stops the stomach from producing too much acid. I asked if there were dietary changes I could make to alleviate my symptoms, but he told me to keep eating the foods I normally ate and the medication should work just fine.

[ pagebreak ]Diet, exercise changes made a big difference
The medication did work just fine, but I still wasn't too keen on taking a pill every single day for the rest of my life—especially because I hadn't even turned 20 yet. So I began doing my own research, and learned about other ways I could reduce my heartburn symptoms. I began cutting back on foods that trigger my heartburn—acidic or greasy foods, such as tomato and buffalo sauce, and anything fried.

I was also tested for celiac disease, a condition in which the body doesn't process gluten properly. My test results were negative, but I still believe I have a gluten sensitivity that contributes to my heartburn. So I gave up breads, pastries, and pastas completely.

Avoiding these foods was an emotional struggle even more than a dietary or nutritional one: I had spent so many years of my life eating them, and in social situations I still feel bad about not being able to eat what everyone else is eating. But on a day-to-day basis it's not so hard, and when I remind myself of how bad those foods make me feel, I don't miss them at all.

I also began exercising regularly, and I have lost 20 pounds since my diagnosis. Once I began eating healthier, I also became passionate about running and kickboxing. I now work out at least five times a week, and last year I ran a 10K—my first (but definitely not my last) major fitness accomplishment.

I'm now 23, and I haven't had to take any prescription pills for my heartburn in nearly four years. (As long as my hernia does not get bigger, I won't need surgery for it either.) I pay a lot of attention now to what I consume, and try to be as healthy as I can. There are moments when I may slip up and a food does affect me, but now I'm aware of what I did to cause it.

Before I knew what was going on with my body, I was so frustrated with my constant heartburn. I would go out for something as simple as football and wings with friends, and I would feel sick for two days afterward.

I want people to know they don't have to feel trapped in that kind of situation, and that medication is not always the best or only answer. They can make changes in their lifestyles and get past it. Once you begin to realize what those changes are for you, you'll be on the road to being a happier, healthier version of yourself.