NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Americans seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux if you go by the amount of acid blocking drugs being sold.

But those medications are costly and come with side effects.

As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez explained, there’s a drug free approach that works just as well.

The drugs are very effective acid blockers, but they should only be taken for a few weeks because recent studies have linked them to everything from thinning bones to heart attack, stroke, dementia, and even premature death.

There’s a much safer approach.

“It was a choking sensation in my throat. My throat was really dry, felt very scratchy, it felt like I was having trouble breathing,” Megan Wheeler said.

Those symptoms Megan Wheeler was having were actually due to stomach acid reflux, even though she didn’t have heartburn.

“Reflux actually comes in two forms. The heartburn people and the respiratory people, and those that have respiratory reflux in which there’s asthma, allergies, chronic throat clearing, post nasal drip, this accounts for about half of the population,” Dr. Jamie Koufman said.

CBS2’s Dr. Gomez was one of those with laryngo-pharyngeal reflux or LPR for short. It’s also called silent reflux because it doesn’t cause classic heartburn. The diagnosis is made with a thin flexible scope to look at the vocal cords. The standard treatment is usually acid blockers called PPIs or Proton Pump Inhibitors.

The possible side effects drove the chief of ENT at Phelps Hospital, Northwell Health to look for a different approach.

“Mostly a plant based diet. I call it a Mediterranean style diet, 90 to 95 percent of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts,” Dr. Craig Zalfan said.

It works; in a study just published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology, Dr. Zalfan found that those patients who consumed the diet actually reduced their LPR symptoms as much or more than those taking the PI drugs.

“The side effect of doing this diet is it also helps with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many of the cancers that affect our country. Many lost weights, 6 to 8 lbs, and decreased use fo other drugs like cholesterol and diabetes,” Dr. Zalfan said.

The patients also drank alkaline water which helped to neutralize their acid reflux.

The diet has less fish and other animal protein than a modern Mediterranean diet. It’s closer to a vegan diet.

Dr. Zalfan said once his patients tried the diet and learned to cook tasty meals with it, they felt better and stuck to it.

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