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Understanding Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Cannabis Strains

June 24, 2021 01:00 pm ET
Understanding Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Cannabis Strains

“Do you prefer an indica or a sativa?” is typically the first question asked at a dispensary. Indica v sativa refers to the two main categories of cannabis strains. Both indicas and sativas differ in appearance and desired effects. Indicas are generally known for a sedating effect while sativa strains are known for a cerebral high, but it’s more complicated than we once thought.

  1. Indica vs. Sativa: Is There a Difference?
    1. Indicas 
    2. Sativas
    3. Hybrids 
  2. What’s Responsible for the Difference in an Indica High vs. a Sativa High?
    1. Cannabinoids Profile
    2. Terpene Profile
  3. Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Edibles
  4. How This Conversation Started
  5. Start With the Effect You Want
    1. Factors That Impact the Desired Effects of a Strain


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.

It is also important to note that science is still catching up to understand what exactly separates these strain types from each other, and other potentially useful medicinal differentiations or classifications. Strain names can be misleading, and indica vs. sativa research is severely lacking. In a 2020 study, only three chemovars were found in a sampling of thousands of Nevada medical cannabis products (1). (Modern Canna defines chemovars as the “breakdown of a plant species according to its chemical composition.”)

Let’s explore the differences between sativas and indicas as well as the benefits of terpenes and different cannabinoids.

Indica vs. Sativa: Is There a Difference?

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 anecdotally can 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.

Keep in mind that strain names and cannabinoid compositions provided by different retailers may vary, and may not necessarily reflect the true diversity or utility of their cannabis. In the future with more research, science will hopefully be better able to parcel out the exact differences and officiate strain names, effects, compositions, and potential uses that state-regulated medicinal marijuana programs and patients rely on.

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 are from colloquial reports and centuries of anecdotal experience (1) (2).

Indicas 

  • Appearance: Indica plants are short and bushy with short, wide leaves.
  • Desired Effects: Indicas are informally known for sedative effects that relax the body. To easily remember that indicas are sedative, “in the couch” sounds like “indica.” For this reason, many marijuana users choose to medicate with indica in the evening before bed to help unwind or manage insomnia.
  • Strains: GMO Cookies, Bubba Kush, and Purple Punch are all indica strains you may have come across before.


Sativas

  • Appearance: The leaves of sativa plants are known for being tall and narrow.
  • Desired Effects: Sativas are invigorating and uplifting. They go nicely with social gatherings, creative projects, and physical activity. Therefore, they are a popular option for medicating during the day when you’re active.
  • Strains: Jack Herer, Super Lemon Haze, and Sour Diesel are popular sativa strains with euphoric effects.


Hybrids

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.

  • Appearance: Hybrids can have a mix of characteristics of both indicas and sativas, depending upon the genetics.
  • Desired Effects: Hybrids bred from sativas and indicas land somewhere on the spectrum. Exactly how a specific hybrid effects someone changes depending on which traits were inherited from the parent plants.
  • Strains: Blue Dream, Wedding Cake, and White Widow are popular hybrid strains that have been bred from both indicas and sativas.


Yet, the way we currently do things doesn’t pan out scientifically. The way the plant affects you doesn’t have anything to do with what the plant’s leaves look like. In fact, selective breeding has driven massive genetic changes across seed types, making the majority of all strains a hybridized version of the original.

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.

What’s Responsible for the Different Effects of Indica vs. Sativa? 

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. We now know that there is no difference between indicas and sativas at the molecular level, thanks to the scientific study of cannabis and chemical analysis. Because the categories sativa and indica do not refer to a significant chemical difference between strains, other factors 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.

Cannabinoid Profile

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in cannabis; the two most well-known are THC and CBD. Cannabis contains over a hundred different kinds of these compounds, but it’s important to start with these two at first. 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.

Terpene Profile 

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.

Not to be confused with cannabinoids, terpenes are produced in the trichomes and then are excreted in the resin of the cannabis plant. While there are currently at least 20,000 known types of terpenes that exist, there are only about a hundred found in the plant and even fewer that have actually been studied.

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.

  • Pinene: There are two main forms; one smells like basil, dill, and hops while the other smells like pine needles and rosemary. The anecdotal benefits include mental focus, a boost in energy, anti-inflammatory effects, and more. 
  • Linalool: Linalool is responsible for the famously relaxing effects of lavender. This terpene could contribute as an anti-epileptic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, and anxiety-reducer. 
  • Myrcene: Myrcene creates the spicy and hoppy smells of hops, lemongrass, and thyme, and it is even found in mangos. It’s an anti-inflammatory and an antimutagen (meaning that it counteracts mutagens/radioactive agents).
  • Limonene: Are you drawn to strains with a citrus scent? Limonene is to thank for that. It’s thought to suppress appetite, kill bacteria and fungus, and help relieve nausea, pain and depression.
  • Caryophyllene: The spicy scent of pepper comes from caryophyllene. This terpene also creates the signature scents of oregano and cinnamon. Caryophyllene is thought to reduce inflammation, fight cancer, and relieve stress (7).


Other less popular terpenes include geraniol and farnesene. Studies are currently underway, mostly overseas, to intricately determine which terpenes and cannabinoids are conducive to cancer treatment and other various disabilities. These studies are incredibly valuable. While one cannabinoid or terpene might be great for one type of treatment, either could potentially hinder the progress of another. Until the U.S. is able to tackle cannabis reform, this type of research will continue to be very limited under excessive and strict regulations within our borders.

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.

Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Edibles

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—as they are not usually strain-specific—and the variation between indica and sativa edibles is often not as pronounced as the variation between indica and sativa flower. 

Like sativa strains of flower, sativa edibles create rejuvenating, cerebral effects that are ideal for productivity and fighting depression. Indica edibles produce a more body-centric, calming high that is well-suited for people dealing with pain, anxiety, and insomnia. However, it should be noted that edibles as a consumption method are known to cause heavy, sedating effects in the body due to how they are processed, so you’ll feel some of that even with sativa edibles. Hybrid edibles, just like they sound, create effects somewhere in the middle. 

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 (due to preserving the original terpenes or adding some back in post-extraction). 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

How This Conversation Started

In the 18th century, the words “indica” and “sativa” were first introduced. The term sativa came from Carl Linneaus and was used to describe hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia. These plants were used for fiber and seeds. The word “indica” came from the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It was used to describe the psychoactive varieties of plants discovered in India. This plant was historically harvested for seeds, fiber, and the production of hashish.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the first to define Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica as the two species of cannabis. Hemp, on the other hand, usually refers to the industrial kinds of marijuana that aren’t intoxicating and mostly used to harvest fiber, seeds, and CBD. But this is actually what was originally called Cannabis sativa.

Most of the cannabis we consume comes from Cannabis indica. However, both terms are used to organize the thousands of strains that are on the market today, even if we aren’t using the terms correctly. While the terms indica and sativa have changed since their earliest definitions, both words are cemented in cannabis culture to refer to the qualities of the effects of the plant, like a “head high” (associated with sativas) versus a “body high” (associated with indicas).

Start With the Effect You Want

When you first enter the world of cannabis, it can get a little overwhelming at first. There are so many strains and products to choose from, it’s almost impossible to know exactly where to start. There are a lot of factors that go into the different ways certain strains make us feel. We need to consider the chemical profile, our individual biology, how we tolerate them, what the dosage is, and how we consume things as well.

Factors That Impact the Desired Effects of a Cannabis Strain 

  • Cannabinoid profile – THC-dominant or CBD-dominant strains will affect you differently and may find that you prefer either the intoxicating effects of THC or the relaxing effects of CBD. Many patients enjoy a balanced strain of equal parts of both.
  • Terpene profile – Follow your nose! Let scent be your guide and a clue to the terpenes in the strain. You may begin to notice that strains with a particular scent benefit you more than others.
  • Personal biology and tolerance – The same strain may have drastically different effects on different people. This is due to differences in individual biology and tolerance levels.
  • Dosage – As you become more familiar with how marijuana makes you feel, you’ll notice that dosage makes a big difference. Each person has to find what works best for them. It may be helpful to keep a diary of your dose and its effects if you are a new consumer, and share that information with your provider.
  • Method of consumption – Your preferred consumption method will also influence how you feel. Even if you use the same strain, the effects will vary depending upon whether you smoke the flower, take a tincture or a capsule, or choose to use edibles.


In order 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. When trying to choose a strain for your particular symptoms and needs, look for the reported effects of specific strains. 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 consults 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. Best of all, this service is available in all 50 states nationwide. Take charge of your health and contact Veriheal 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.

This guide is a compilation of blog posts written by Lo and Anthony Dutcher.

Post Your Comments

Sanford Feldt says:

July 5, 2018 at 9:45 am

I’m a stage 2 Pancreatic cancer survivor. Doctors declared that im now cancer free and i’m so glad to hear that. Since then marijuana has been a great help to me so i decided to grow my own marijuana for my personal use only. But growing marijuana requires more knowledge and need to understand its life cycle. I have encountered many different problems in growing myself but that doesn’t help me stop from growing my own herbal medicine

Reply
Mason mcgrew says:

March 29, 2022 at 11:44 pm

Great article Samantha!

Reply
Content Medically Reviewed By:<br> Dr. Abraham Benavides, MD
Content Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Abraham Benavides, MD


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