“Do you prefer an indica or a sativa?” is typically the first question asked at a dispensary. Indica vs. sativa refers to the two main categories of cannabis strains. Both indicas and sativas differ in appearance and effects. Indicas are generally known for a sedating effect, while sativa strains are known for a cerebral high. However, it’s more complicated than we once thought.
Because there are so many medical marijuana patients who find that a specific strain provides the best relief for their medical symptoms—from anxiety and depression to chronic pain and epilepsy—and because the terms indica and sativa appear on cannabis packaging, it’s important to understand the differences between types of strains.
Sativas are typically known for producing a creative “head high,” which some find helpful for being productive during the day. Indicas, on the other hand, are associated with a “body high” that has been reported to promote relaxation, sleep, and pain relief. You may have heard of it referred to as “couch-lock.” Hybrids are the third category and are popular in the cannabis market; hybrids are bred from both sativas and indicas and can have effects associated with either.
Indicas and sativas historically came from “landrace strains,” but there has been so much cross-breeding since then by retail markets that strains nowadays require advanced chemistry studies to classify. Much of what we think we know about indicas, sativas, and hybrids is from colloquial reports and centuries of anecdotal experience (1) (2).
The names sativa and indica are also used when referring to hybrids. Hybrids are strains that have been bred from both sativas and indicas. “Sativa dominant” and “indica dominant” are terms commonly used at dispensaries to describe which subspecies a hybrid most resembles. If you prefer sativas, for example, you may find that you like the effects of sativa-dominant hybrid strains the most.
So, why do we think the words indica and sativa make all the difference in our choices? To more effectively choose strains that produce the effects you’re looking for, let’s go into more detail about the defining characteristics of strains.
Today, the conversation around strains is a lot more complicated than once thought, and new categories are being proposed. Due to selective breeding, most strains are not purely indica or sativa. There are other factors that are more telling of the benefits and effects of a specific strain.
Two of the most important of these factors are the cannabinoid profile and the terpene profile of each strain. In order to find the right strain, you need to understand how these factors influence the experience you have and the type of high you feel. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in cannabis; the two most well-known are THC and CBD. Instead of choosing your strain based on the classification of indica, sativa, or hybrid, try basing it on the combination of THC and CBD instead.
THC (short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the intoxicating cannabinoid that is responsible for the “high,” and it can relieve feelings of pain and nausea. THC-dominant marijuana strains are known for producing a high, or euphoric experience. But they are also popular for alleviating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other issues (4). However, some people can feel anxious after using strains that contain high levels of THC, or they might prefer not to feel strong psychoactive effects. If so, higher CBD is the way to go.
CBD (short for cannabidiol) isn’t intoxicating, and it’s been studied to help ease pain, anxiety, inflammation, and a lot of other medical issues (3). CBD-dominant strains generally only contain trace amounts of THC. This is especially important if you need to keep a clear head or handle other important things while attempting to manage pain. Additionally, CBD can potentially reduce or counteract the psychoactive effects of THC (5). Some cannabis patients prefer a balanced mix of THC and CBD, like a 1:1 ratio.
There are other cannabinoids, like CBN, CBG, THCA, and THCV, that all impact the effects of a strain. When shopping, be sure to consider the cannabinoid profile of the strain or the product to find the right effects for your needs.
Terpenes are naturally occurring aromatic compounds that are responsible for the unique scents of fruits and plants, like the calming scent of lavender or the energizing scent of citrus fruit. In nature, the strong volatile smells that terpenes create act like pest deterrents. These aromatic compounds are produced in the same glands of the cannabis plant that produce THC and CBD. They’re what give the plant its unique smell and give each individual strain its distinct bouquet of aromatics and tastes.
Cannabis terpenes can make us feel stimulated the same way essential oils do. Pinene is a terpene that can cause us to feel alert, while linalool can relax us. It’s worth trying to get familiar with the most common ones as they are important ingredients and are thought to confer additional medicinal benefits to cannabis strains (6). If you can, smell the strains you’re thinking about buying. Find the ones that stand out to you the most and try them out.
Cannabis contains a fine-tuned spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes that all work in combination and synergistically—also known as the entourage effect—to create physiological and psychoactive effects that can be used to our benefit. Different strains will possess different levels and combinations of these constituents and each one can be used therapeutically, especially when they are targeted at the micro-level. Make sure to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before using cannabis medicinally.
Despite being very different products, cannabis edibles and cannabis flower follow the same rules when it comes to indica/sativa/hybrid classification. But unlike dried flower, store-bought edibles typically contain distillate or other cannabis concentrates that are extracted from the flower. This means that there are far fewer edible choices overall and the variation between indica and sativa edibles is often not as pronounced as the variation between indica and sativa flower.
Just like with flower, many cannabis experts are now recommending that consumers look at factors beyond the indica/sativa classification when picking out edibles. Because the extraction process used to make edibles is notorious for destroying the flavor-fueling terpenes, look for higher-quality edibles that contain specific terpenes. The cannabinoid content will also tell you a lot about the effects; for example, edibles with both CBD and THC will be stronger and reduce anxiety.
If you want a little more control over the effects of your edibles, consider skipping the dispensary and making your own at home. While store-bought edibles are made with extracts, which have limited cannabinoid and terpene content, homemade edibles can be made strain-specific using decarboxylated flower. Not sure what to make? Check out this recipe for cannabis-infused junk food cookies.
To find the right strain, it’s important to understand how you want to feel when you consume cannabis and which conditions you want to alleviate. Knowing whether a strain is an indica or a sativa is not enough information to tell how it will make you feel; note the potency levels of the cannabinoids and the terpenes in the strain.
Always speak with a medical professional before attempting any of these products. Interested in learning more? Veriheal offers thorough and informative consultations with a licensed medical marijuana doctor who can guide you through all of your concerns and provide you with reassurance without judgment of your medical choice to pursue cannabis. Book an appointment today!
Note: The content on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be professional medical advice. Do not attempt to self-diagnose or prescribe treatment based on the information provided. Always consult a physician before making any decision on the treatment of a medical condition.
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