From an airy apartment in Johannesburg, Aala Marra meets her 11 thousand Instagram followers via her stories every day. The topic? The cleanse that saved her life -- and now she's leading thousands of others in it. About two years ago, she fell terminally ill with an autoimmune disease that was, at first, undiagnosable. It started off with losing half of her hair one morning and culminated in—over the span of a year—a long list of complicated symptoms. After seeing countless specialists, consuming cocktails of medicine, and finding herself bedridden, she decided to do things her way. She embarked on a self-designed food cleanse that reversed her symptoms in two weeks and left her disease-free three months later. It saved her life.
Now, she’s bringing others on their own wellness journeys by sharing the recipes that helped her live again. Aala, who is Sudanese-American, based in New York, but escapes to Johannesburg during winter months, has woven elements of her heritage in these recipes, dedicating her book to both her mother and her Sudanese identity.
We spoke with Aala about her story of healing, wellness, and how she hopes her journey inspires others to build a sustainable and intentional relationship with their bodies and food.
I’m 25 years old, I graduated college a few years ago and immediately moved to New York City. My parents are very traditional Sudanese parents that wanted me to be a doctor. So, I spent my whole life preparing to be a doctor but realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. Moving to New York was a creative playground. But, I wasn’t happy with my job in finance, the career path I’d stumbled into. And then I got really sick.
I was dealing with a lot of stress and going through a really rough time in a relationship. And then, July 18, 2015 (I remember the exact date), I was taking a shower and noticed half of my hair was falling out. I hopped out of the shower, looked at the mirror, and saw visible bald streaks through my hair. I was in a state of extreme shock. I immediately called a doctor, went to an appointment, she took my blood sample… and everything came back normal. And that would be the case over the next few weeks, everyone telling me that my results were normal.
Then I started developing other symptoms: eczema, rashes, stiff joints, muscle spasms, chronic headaches, brain fog, memory loss, mood swings, depression, asthma, dry mouth, extreme fatigue, nausea, extreme bloating, constant constipation + diarrhea, cold fingers/toes, and painful periods—to name a few.
My voice started changing, I once passed out in the streets of New York, on some days I couldn't get out of bed, I started having these muscle spasms so I’d be having a conversation and would shake uncontrollably. I felt like I had no control over my body.
I was seeing doctors 4-5 times a week at one point. They thought I had a brain tumor so did CAT scans, I didn’t. They thought I had thyroid issues, but the tests showed I didn’t. I did this for a year and a half while racking up the medical bills.
In 2016, I was transferred to one of the best doctors in New York, who finally diagnosed me with an auto-immune disease. But none of his suggestions actually addressed my symptoms so I walked out. I was desperate so I began doing research and decided to cut out all animal products, wheat, soy, sugar. I started drinking a gallon of water a day, a green juice that I make (shared in my book), and completely changed my diet. In two weeks - all my symptoms stopped.
Not at all. I was just desperate. I didn’t even have the hope that I would get better. At a point, I was suicidal, I just felt that this disease was going to end me. I didn’t think I was going to make it. I did the cleanse because I was out of options.
All reversed in two weeks. And three months later, all my hair grew back, my skin went back to normal and I honestly felt better than I had in my entire life
Gratitude, but I still had a lot of breakdowns. Because I just couldn’t believe it. Especially as my hair started to slowly grow back.
For this to be sustainable, it can’t be about guilt and deprivation. But instead of self-love and nurturing my body by giving it what it needs.
I used to go on living life not making my own food, not consuming enough vegetables or high-nutrient foods. So, now that’s changed. I’m actually not vegan or vegetarian now but my diet is made up of whole foods, and I try to cook most of my meals myself. I don’t consume dairy or sugar (I’ll only consume sugar from natural sources like coconut or date sugar). I’m always extra hydrated, drinking so much water has a changed my life so I drink 3 liters to a gallon a day.
There’s just a completely different way that I prepare my food, and consume my food, and I'm generally more conscious about what’s going on in my body. But I know for this to be sustainable for me it can’t be about guilt and deprivation, but instead about self-love and nurturing my body by giving it what it needs.
I’ve always had a private Instagram, and I recently made it public last year. Honestly, as part of the healing process, I wanted to share. When I was really sick, I’d search my symptoms and the internet scares you with all this information. I couldn’t even find one person who was like “hey, I’m going through the same thing”. So I wanted to put this out because someone else might be going through the same thing, and I wanted to show that I didn’t end up in a coffin.
In November, I did the cleanse again for myself. People started following me, thousands of people were looking at my story, and they wanted to know how they could do it with me in a more formal way. So, I spent a couple of weeks to test all my recipes, put them together in an e-book and launched the cleanse. The response has been overwhelming, and I’m going to lead the cleanse again March, but this time on a bigger scale. It’s really exciting, it’s growth from here on out. I’m very lucky to be able to live my own truth.
It's about tapping into another level of consciousness and wellness, understanding that the little things that we do add up, and they'll either add up to something good or destructive.
A friend of mine recently finished the cleanse. She'd wanted to lose weight, which she did but got even more than that. Her energy levels increased, she said she had clarity of mind and felt sharp. The only way she could explain it was that she felt that she was living in her best body, the body that'd she'd been made to live in. And now she carries all these good habits with her. She now understands the connection between mental and physical health. She’s gotten better at cooking for herself, and feeding herself — something a lot of us honestly don’t know how to do well. So I hope people finish this cleanse and are hydrated, feeling like their best selves, and having more fiber in their gut. It's about tapping into another level of consciousness and wellness, understanding that the little things that we do add up, and they'll either add up to something good or destructive.