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Keaiwa Heiau ©William Crowe
The Hawaiian word for health is "ola". It also means "life". Hawaiians obviously believed you could not have health without life, nor life without health.

The ancient Hawaiian Health System was well developed. They had a medical profession, medicines, treatments, a lengthy apprenticeship program for medical specialists (kahuna) and training facilities located in special healing heiau (temples). They also had designated places of healing such as Coconut Island (Mokuola) at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, famous for its curative spring waters.

Similar to the organization of today's medical profession, noted Hawaiian Cultural Scholar, George Kanahele tells us there were:

  • Kahuna haihai iwi who were skilled in setting broken bones.
  • Kahuna haha who diagnosed illnesses by feeling with the fingers.
  • Kahuna hoohanau keiki who delivered babies.
  • Kahuna hoohapai keiki who induced pregnancy.
  • Kahuna laau lapaau who treated patients with herbs; they were the general practitioners.
  • Kahuna lomilomi who were physical therapists and also skilled in massage.
  • Kahuna paaoao who diagnosed and treated illnesses of infants.
In addition, the kahuna aloha specialized in inducing love and the kahuna anaana (supposed witch doctors) both healed and prayed people to death.

To ancient Hawaiians, mana (spiritual power) was necessary to be a truly successful practitioner. Education was sacred as knowledge was a way of achieving this power. If a parent sensed a child had a "healing spirit" enabling them to become a doctor, the child would be sent to live and study with a kahuna from as young as five years of age and they would spend upwards of fifteen to twenty years in training. During this time they studied anatomy, learned how to diagnose disease, how to choose the right cures or medicines (particularly the use of medicinal plants), and learned sacred prayers. They also learned how to perform simple surgical procedures, set bones and perform autopsies. They employed the use of steam baths, massage, and laxatives and undertook empirical research.

Since the Hawaiians viewed the body, mind and spirit as one, Hawaiians believed that the body could not be healed without healing the spirit. Accordingly, they used a combination of psychic, spiritual, and natural treatments to cure illnesses.

In particular, before a patient was treated, the kahuna performed a ritual of hooponopono (making things right), a type of counseling with the aid of prayer to cleanse the mind and heart of negative thoughts and feelings.

Banned by the early missionaries as pagan ritual, today hooponopono is included in the traditional Hawaiian Healing programs now being implemented by Hawaiian Health Care Centers serving Native Hawaiians. The program offered at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center on Oahu's leeward coast (home to many native Hawaiians) includes:

  Hooponopono -

  Lomilomi -

  Lau Lapaau -

  Pale Keki -
  Laau Kahea -
Traditional Hawaiian family problem solving process making things "right".
Traditional, spiritual and physical muscle stress relaxation by licensed therapists.
Healing with the use of compounding herbs and other traditional remedies.
Mother and child care, before, during and after birth.
Spiritual or faith healing through prayer and chants - a form of exorcism.

Source: Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.

Noni Plant ©William Crowe

The vast majority of Hawaiian remedies were from plants. It's no different today since most of our modern pharmaceuticals are based on substances derived from plants. A sampling of traditional botanical based remedies is given below:
Aalii (Hopseed Bush): The leaves are used to treat rash, itches and other skin diseases.
Awa (Kava): Used in the treatment of headaches, muscle pain, and to induce sleep. It is also a treatment for general debility, chills, colds and other lung problems, such as bronchitis and asthma.
Awapuhi (Shampoo Ginger): Ashes of the leaves are used to treat cuts and sores. The root is used in the treatment of ringworm and sprains and bruises. The root is also used in treatment of headache, toothache and stomach ache.
Kalo (Taro): It is the single most important plant in Hawaiian culture. The cut raw rootstock is rubbed on wounds to stop bleeding and the cut raw petiole is used to relieve the pain and prevent swelling of insect bites and stings. The corm is used to treat indigestion and as a laxative. The leaves are used in the treatment of asthma.
Ko (Sugarcane): The sap is commonly used to sweeten herbal preparations and the juice from the shoot is used to treat lacerations.
Mamaki: The inner part of the fruit is used to treat thrush and to cure general debility. The leaves are sold as tea in Hawaii and an infusion made from the leaves is used to treat generalized weakness.
Noni (Indian Mulberry): The leaves and bark are prepared as a tonic, and to treat urinary disorders and muscle and joint pain. Either the ripe fruit or the leaves can be used as a poultice for boils, wounds and fractures. A tonic prepared from the immature fruit is used to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and loss of appetite.
Ohia lehua: The flower is used to ease childbirth and leaf bud tea is used as a tonic and to treat colds. Olena (Turmeric): The root is used to treat earache, and nose and throat discomfort.
Pia (Polynesian Arrowroot): The raw starch was used in water for diarrhea and when mixed with red clay for dysentery. The starch was also applied to wounds to stop bleeding.

Source: Mala Laau: A Garden of Hawaiian Healing Plants, Hawaii Medical Library, 1221 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu.
Consult with a practitioner regarding proper usage.


Most ethnic groups who migrated to Hawaii brought along their own cures. The Chinese and Japanese are especially known for their unique and effective treatments, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, shiatsu, and tai chi. These time-honored treatments are available throughout the Islands.

Hawaiian folk medicine cures for common ailments
have been used effectively for centuries.
Many folk remedies and cures are used to this day and, what's more,
they appear to work!
Hawaiian Culture Index
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