Sativa vs. Indica: What to Expect Across Cannabis Types and Strains
The two main types of cannabis, sativa and indica, are used for a number of medicinal and recreational purposes.
Sativas are known for their “head high,” an invigorating, energizing effect that can help reduce anxiety or stress and increase creativity and focus.
Indicas are typically associated with full-body effects, such as increasing deep relaxation and reducing insomnia.
Although research examining these effects is limited, it appears these plants have more in common than previously thought.
In other words, the category, or type, of cannabis may not be the greatest indicator of the effects you’ll experience.
Here’s how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, potential side effects, and more.
The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but it isn’t really that simple.
Individual plants produce varying effects, even among the same type of cannabis. It all depends on the plant’s chemical composition and the growing technique used.
Instead of looking at the type alone — sativa or indica — look at the description the grower and dispensary provide.
Oftentimes, the plant types are broken down into specific strains, or breeds.
Strains are distinguished by their individual cannabinoid and terpene content. These compounds are what determine the strain’s overall effects.
Cannabis plants contain dozens of chemical compounds called cannabinoids.
These naturally occurring components are responsible for producing many of the effects — both negative and positive — of cannabis use.
Researchers still don’t understand what all of the cannabinoids do, but they have identified two main ones — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — as well as several less common compounds.
- THC. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis plants. It’s responsible for the “high” or state of euphoria associated with cannabis use. Levels of THC have been increasing as growers try to create hybrids with a greater concentration of the compound.
- CBD. CBD is non-psychoactive. It doesn’t cause a “high.” However, it may produce many physical benefits, such as reducing pain and nausea, preventing seizures, and easing migraine.
- CBN. Cannabinol (CBN) is used to ease symptoms and side effects of neurological conditions, including epilepsy, seizures, and uncontrollable muscle stiffness.
- THCA. Tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA) is similar to THC, but it doesn’t cause any psychoactive effects. Its potential benefits include reducing inflammation from arthritis and autoimmune diseases. It may also help reduce symptoms of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
- CBG. Cannabigerol (CBG) is thought to help reduce anxiety and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
A great deal of attention is paid to the amount of THC and CBD in a given strain, but newer research suggests that terpenes may be just as impactful.
Terpenes are another naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant.
The terpenes present directly affect the plant’s smell. They may also influence the effects produced by specific strains.
According to Leafly, common terpenes include:
- Bisabolol. With notes of chamomile and tea tree oil, the terpene bisabolol is thought to reduce inflammation and irritation. It may also have microbial and pain-reducing effects.
- Caryophyllene. The peppery, spicy molecule may reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of depression, and improve ulcers.
- Linalool. Linalool is said to help improve relaxation and boost mood with its floral notes.
- Myrcene. The most common terpene, this earthy, herbal molecule may help reduce anxiety and insomnia so you can sleep better.
- Ocimene. This terpene produces notes of basil, mango, and parsley. Its primary effects may include easing congestion and warding off viruses and bacteria.
- Pinene. As the name suggests, this terpene produces an intense pine aroma. It may help boost memory, reduce pain, and ease some of the not-so-pleasant symptoms of THC, such as nausea and coordination problems.
- Terpinolene. Cannabis with this compound may smell like apples, cumin, and conifers. It may have sedative, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.
- Limonene. Bright, zippy citrus notes come from this terpene. It’s said to improve mood and reduce stress.
- Humulene. This terpene is deeply earthy and woody, like hops or cloves. Cannabis strains with this molecule may reduce inflammation.
- Eucalyptol. With notes of eucalyptus and tea tree oil, this molecule is refreshing and invigorating. It may also reduce inflammation and fight bacteria.
Sativa and indica are the two main types of cannabis plants. The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but this is an immense oversimplification. Here's how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, and more.
The Different Types of Weed: Sativa, Indica, Hybrid
Why the indica and sativa classifications actually don’t matter.
Consumers frequently recommend different types of weed based on the high they’re trying to achieve. “If you want an energetic high, go with sativa. Need help sleeping? Try an indica. A hybrid will give you the best of both worlds.”
While this sounds right based on our anecdotal experiences, the science behind this heavily believed fact isn’t all there. Choosing a cannabis product based on whether it is sativa, indica, or hybrid may not be a particularly helpful strategy.
Rather than in its physical features, science says the important distinctions between the different types of weed are the varying chemical compositions within each strain or individual plant.
Sativas vs Indicas vs Hybrids
Sativa Variety of Cannabis (iStock / Yarygin)
- Origins: Sativas are believed to come from equatorial regions which explains their preference for tropical growing conditions.
- Physical Features: Sativas are thin and quite tall, scaling 12 feet or higher. Their leaves are serrated and long.
- Strains: Green Crack, Sour Diesel, and Durban Poison
- Origins: Indicas are believed to come from somewhere in India or Afghanistan, although the exact origins aren’t really known.
- Physical Features: Indicas are known for their short, squat stature, ideal for surviving the volatile mountain climate from which they are thought to originate.
- Strains: Hindu Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, Northern Lights
- Origins: Hybrids are manually bred from both indica and sativa strains. Most cannabis strains are hybrids, but they may be indica or sativa dominant.
- Physical Features: The aesthetics of a hybrid plant vary based on its parents.
- Strains: Blue Dream, Gorilla Glue, Chemdawg
Terpenes are More Important than Strain Type
The most prevalent chemical constituents in a cannabis plant are cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in ways that produce physiological and psychological effects that are, for the most part, beneficial.
For this reason, when trying to decide how a specific strain is going to affect you, it’s more beneficial to look at cannabinoid and terpene content than choosing based off of indica, sativa, or hybrid.
The most abundant cannabinoids in a marijuana plant include the following:
- Tetrahydrocannabinol– THC is the most abundant cannabinoid present in most cannabis plants. It is primarily responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effects. While in small doses, THC can enhance mood, larger doses have been implicated in adverse effects including paranoia and anxiety. Cannabis products with high THC content are more likely to lead to these negative side effects.
- Cannabidiol– CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana, and it has been the subject of extensive research in the past decade. CBD is a primary agent in cannabis’ medical efficacy, but it does not cause any psychoactive effects. CBD’s side effects are relatively mild making it a competitive medicine for pediatric patients as well as those managing chronic symptoms. Cannabis products containing elevated amounts of CBD are less likely to lead to side effects since CBD counteracts the adverse psychological reactions to THC.
- Cannabinol– CBN research is limited, but existing evidence show that the non-psychoactive cannabinoid plays an important role in cannabis’ sedative effects. It also seems to work synergistically with CBD and THC in alleviating pain. Products with greater traces of CBN may be linked to greater sedation.
Terpenes In Cannabis
Terpenes are extremely volatile compounds that give cannabis (and other plants) its fragrance and flavor. Like cannabinoids, terpenes also interact with molecular pathways in the human body to produce primarily beneficial effects.
Some of the most frequently occurring terpenes in cannabis plants include the following:
- Myrcene– Myrcene has been identified as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and sedative.
- Caryophyllene– Typically the most abundant terpene in cannabis plants, caryophyllene is an anti-inflammatory, a gastric cytoprotective, and anti-malarial
- Pinene– Pinene has been identified as a bronchodilator and an anti-inflammatory.
- Linalool- Best known for its anxiolytic effects, linalool is also an anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, and antibiotic
Ethan B. Russo, renowned cannabis researcher, argues that the synergistic relationship between cannabinoids and terpenes is a far more useful indicator of medical efficacy than a cannabis plant’s species classification. In his seminal 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology review, “Taming THC,” Russo focuses on the potential for cannabinoid and terpenoid interactions to “produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.”
If Russo is right, whether or not a cannabis product is suitable for morning or evening use depends on its cannabinoid and terpene composition, not its physical description (the primary factor used to classify a plant as either sativa or indica).
Weed 101: Sativa, Indica Effects Aren’t Based In Science
According to a 2014 essay by Jacob L. Erkelens published in Cannabinoids, the controversy surrounding cannabis taxonomy stems back to the 16 th century. Even then cannabis was classified with multiple names including wild hemp, domesticated hemp, Cannabis sylvestris, and Cannabis terminalem. It was Carl Linnaeus, the botanist credited with establishing the taxonomical system we use today, who formally classified the species as Cannabis sativa in 1753. A new species of Cannabis, C. indica, was formally classified in 1785 by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark. In both cases, these classifications were based on the geographical origins and physical appearance of each species, not their chemical compounds.
In the 234 years since Lamark’s addition, hundreds of cannabis strains, or sub-varieties within the two broader species sativa and indica, have been identified. According to their producers, each of these strains possesses the potential to create a unique set of medicinal effects. While these names add complexity and interest to cannabis subculture (as well as a mechanism for producers to compete with one another), they present a significant debacle: their differences are not supported by research, primarily because high-quality research on the topic does not exist.
The number of patients turning to cannabis as legitimate medicine is growing, and often these people have little more than anecdotal evidence to turn to when considering the best cannabis products to consume. It is becoming an increasingly urgent priority to determine the chemical composition of individual strains and how these compositions (and in which doses) affect the human body.
For now, cannabis consumers do not have to settle for myth or ignorance. Legal marijuana states require manufacturers and producers to label their cannabis products. Rather than relying on the species of a cannabis plant to predict the effects they will experience, consumers should examine the cannabinoid and terpene content printed on the label of each individual cannabis product and study current research on the effects of those chemical compounds.
The three types of weed are sativa, indica, and hybrid. If you plan on trying cannabis, it's important you know their differences before you explore.