Research, Treatment

The Indica vs Sativa Debate is Outdated: Understanding Terpenes


by Lo

December 5, 2019 04:02 pm ET

Content Updated July 27, 2020: Updates reflect new content written about relative cannabinoids and terpenes.

Sativa and indica are the terms commonly used in cannabis culture to describe different subspecies of the plant. “Do you want an indica or a sativa?” is typically the first question asked at a cannabis dispensary, and “indica” and “sativa” labels accompany cannabis flower and products at the counter. The indica vs sativa dichotomy was once the most helpful way to distinguish between different subspecies of cannabis and the psychedelic effects they produce. However, we now know that there are other compounds in cannabis, like terpenes, that are more telling of the effects of specific strains. 

A Review of the Indica vs Sativa Argument

The French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the first to define cannabis sativa and cannabis indica as the two species of cannabis. Over time, the term sativa has been used in cannabis culture to refer to strains that produce a “head high” that is known for decreasing anxiety, while indica refers to cannabis that gives the user a “body high,” that can help treat pain and promote relaxation. See the table below for more information on how the categories of indica vs sativa have traditionally been used to distinguish types of cannabis. 

The names sativa and indica are also used when referring to cannabis hybrids. Hybrids are strains of cannabis that have been bred from both sativas and indicas. “Sativa dominant” and “indica dominant” are terms used at most dispensaries to describe which subspecies a hybrid most resembles. 

Why the Indica vs Sativa Debate is Outdated

Up until recent times, cannabis users have embraced the old adage about the differing effects of indica dominant and sativa dominant cannabis strains. Indica being the type of strain that is notorious for its sedating effects while sativas are lauded for their uplifting and energizing effects. However, these classifications are more or less outdated in terms of how they provoke stimulation. 

Researchers have since found that the best way to group cannabis is by way of marijuana vs hemp. Furthermore, selective breeding has driven massive genetic changes across seed types, making the majority of all cannabis strains a hybridized version of the original. 

We now know that there is no difference between indicas and sativas at the molecular level. Therefore, because the categories sativa and indica do not refer to a significant chemical difference between cannabis strains, the different combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes are more telling of the benefits and effects of a specific strain.

In “The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD,” published in the academic journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, argues that the indica vs sativa distinction is not supported by cannabis science. Dr. Russo goes on to say that, “It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available.”

Using Terpenes and Cannabinoids to Find Your Ideal Product

Scientists and researchers have also discovered that the importance of cannabis’ chemical composition vastly outweighs the infamous indica or sativa categorization. Cannabis obviously contains its headlining cannabinoids THC and CBD, but most people aren’t aware that there are several others that are just as useful. 

Cannabis contains a fine-tuned spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes that all work synergistically 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. 

Terpenes are a compound that plants produce. The purpose of terpenes is to act as pest deterrents because of the strong volatile smells they produce. In cannabis, users enjoy terpenes because they 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 cannabis plant and even fewer that have actually been studied.   

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 US is able to tackle cannabis reform, this type of cannabis research will always be very limited under excessive and strict regulations within our borders. 

Understanding the Differences Between Terpenes

 When trying to choose a cannabis 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; it’s also important to note the potency levels of the cannabinoids CBD and THC and the terpenes in the strain. Read the tables below to better understand the known differences between the terpenes found in cannabis. 

We do know is that there are 6 headlining terpenes often found in cannabis that are indeed beneficial to us. Let’s explore. 

Popular Cannabis Terpenes

  • Myrcene
    • SMELL: Cloves
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, sedative
    • FOUND IN: Hops, thyme, lemongrass, mangoes
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, insomnia, pain
    • Learn more about myrcene here
  • Pinene
    • SMELL: Pine
    • EFFECTS: Anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, bronchodilator, improves memory retention
    • FOUND IN: Pine, sage, rosemary, conifer trees
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Breathing related ailments, bacterial infections, dementia, inflammation
    • Learn more about pinene here
  • Limonene
    • SMELL: Citrus
    • EFFECTS: Anti-carcinogenic, anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, stress reducer
    • FOUND IN: Rinds of citrus fruits
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/stress, cancer, depression, inflammation
    • Learn more about limonene here
  • Linalool
    • SMELL: Lavender with a hint of spiciness
    • EFFECTS: Antiepileptic, sedating, pain reliever, stress reducer
    • ALSO FOUND IN: Lavender, basil, citrus, and laurel
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/Stress, inflammation, insomnia, pain, seizures
    • Learn more about linalool
  • Humulene  
    • SMELL: Hops
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, appetite suppressant, pain reliever
    • FOUND IN: Hops, sage, ginger, coriander
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, over-eating disorders, pain
    • Learn more about humulene here
  • Caryophyllene  
    • SMELL: Spicy
    • EFFECTS: Anti-depressant, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, pain-reliever, stress reducer
    • FOUND IN: Black pepper, cloves, rosemary, hops
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/stress, depression, inflammation, pain, skin diseases
    • Learn more about caryophyllene

Less-Common Terpenes Found in Cannabis

  • Ocimene has antifungal properties and a very pleasant aroma. It’s frequently used in the perfume industry. 
    • SMELL: Sweet, citrusy, floral
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory
    • FOUND IN: Mint, Parsely, Orchids
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Hypertension, Diabetes, Pain Relief
  • Terpinolene has been studied in mice. Not only does it produce sedating effects, but also antioxidant and anticancer effects in rat brain cells. It’s often found in jack Herer strains. 
    • SMELL: Mint, camphor, menthol
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotectant, stress reducer, pain-reliever
    • FOUND IN: Mugwort, wormwood, sagebrush, aromatic ginger
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/stress, inflammation, pain, heart disease
  • Terpineol is known for its pleasant smell and relaxing effects. It’s also used in perfume and soaps. 
    • SMELL: Lilac, crabapple blossoms, lime blossoms
    • EFFECTS: Anti-bacterial, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory, gastroprotective, pain reliever
    • FOUND IN: Pine oil, cajuput oil
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Bacterial infections, inflammation, pain, seizures
  • Geraniol – Emits a rose aroma that makes it another popular ingredient in perfumery. It’s found in geraniums and is also great for repelling mosquitos.
    • SMELL: Roses
    • EFFECTS: Anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant
    • FOUND IN: Geraniums, lemons, perfumes
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Bacterial infections, inflammation
  • Phellandrene produces antidepressive effects and is commonly found in eucalyptus-type plants. It smells of a combination of peppermint and citrus.
    • SMELL: Peppermint w/ citrus undertones
    • EFFECTS: Anti-depressant, pain-reliever
    • FOUND IN: Essential oil of eucalyptus plants
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Depression, pain 
  • Borneol has a minty smell and has slightly sedating effects. It is also beneficial for illness or stress recovery. Borneol has anti-inflammatory effects and can inhibit the sensation of pain.
    • SMELL: Mint, camphor, menthol
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotectant, stress reducer, pain-reliever
    • FOUND IN: Mugwort, wormwood, sagebrush, aromatic ginger
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/stress, inflammation, pain, heart disease
  • Bisabolol is the primary ingredient in German chamomile essential oil and has been shown to promote cell death in leukemia.
    • SMELL: Sweet, floral aroma
    • EFFECTS: Anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, pain-reliever
    • FOUND IN: Chamomile essential oil
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, pain
  • Phytol has a calming effect and is commonly found in green tea. It results from chlorophyll degradation and also helps inhibit the neurotransmitter degradation of our GABAs.
    • SMELL: Floral and balsamic
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, pain reducer
    • FOUND IN: Green tea
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, pain
  • Camphene has been shown to have pain-relieving and antioxidant effects. It is often found in essential oils such as cypress tree oil, and citronella oil.
    • SMELL: Fir needles
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, pain reliever
    • FOUND IN: Essential oils extracted from trees (turpentine, cypress oil, camphor oil, citronella)
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, pain
  • Camphor is derived from the camphor tree. Since it is easily absorbed through the skin, it is used in creams and lotions. When used, it produces a cooling sensation. It provides a slight numbing effect that makes it great for alleviating aggravating skin conditions and itching.
    • SMELL: Rosemary
    • EFFECTS: Slight local anesthetic, improves perceived nasal airflow, improves blood flow, increases heart rate, appetite suppressant
    • FOUND IN: Camphor trees, Vicks Vaporub™
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Asthma, overeating disorders, pain
  • Menthol is a popular terpene that exhibits a minty smell and taste. It’s analgesic properties make it useful as a cough suppressant and for relieving irritation. In mice studies, it was shown to increase pain thresholds. 
    • SMELL: Mint
    • EFFECTS: Anti-irritant, pain-reliever
    • FOUND IN: Mint
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Coughing, pain
  • Nerolidol has a woody aroma and is often found in ginger, lavender, and lemongrass. It has sedating effects and exhibits potent antifungal and antimalarial activity.
    • SMELL: Woody, bark
    • EFFECTS: Antifungal, sedative
    • FOUND IN: Ginger, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, tea tree
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Insomnia, skin lesions
  • Guaiol is an alcohol found in the oil of guaiacum flowers and cypress pine. It possesses insecticidal and antimicrobial properties.
    • SMELL: Pine
    • EFFECTS: Antimicrobial
    • FOUND IN: Oil of guaiacum and cypress pine
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Bacterial infections
  • Isopulegol has a variety of promising routes for therapeutic research. Studies have shown that it possesses gastroprotective, anticonvulsant, and anti-inflammatory effects. Cannabis strains that are high in isopulegol are likely to experience a relaxing effect. It’s found in lemongrass and geranium. 
    • SMELL: Mint
    • EFFECTS: Anti-convulsive, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, gastroprotective, stress-reducer
    • FOUND IN: Lemongrass, geranium
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Anxiety/stress, inflammation, seizures
  • Geranyl Acetate is found in a variety of essential oils that are derived from citronella, lemongrass, sassafras, and roses. It has a strong floral smell with fruity undertones. It also produces strong antimicrobial effects.
    • SMELL: Floral with fruity undertones
    • EFFECTS: Antimicrobial
    • FOUND IN: Natural oils derived from citronella, lemongrass, sassafras, and roses
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Bacterial infections
  • Cymene is commonly found in cumin and thyme. Cymene has well-documented studies that show that it can significantly reduce pain sensations by adjusting the opioid system. 
    • SMELL: Pleasant
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, pain reliever
    • FOUND IN: Essential oils of cumin and thyme
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation, pain
  • Eucalyptol (also known as Cineol) can be found in eucalyptus, bay leaves, and mugwort. It has a signature spicy mint aroma and has antifungal, antimicrobial, and pain-relieving effects.
    • SMELL: Minty, earthy, spicy
    • EFFECTS: Anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antioxidant, pain reliever
    • FOUND IN: Eucalyptus oil, bay leaves, tea tree, mugwort
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Memory loss, asthma, inflammation, pain
  • Delta 3 Carene has a pungent sweet smell that is often found in rosemary and cedar. It has anti-inflammatory effects and can even act as a decongestant. Cannabis strains that are high in this terpene can cause dry eyes and mouth symptoms. 
    • SMELL: Sweet, pungent, cedar
    • EFFECTS: Anti-inflammatory, causes dry-mouth
    • FOUND IN: Turpentine, rosemary, cedar
    • HELPS RELIEVE: Inflammation

Always speak with a medical professional before attempting any of these products. Interested in learning more? Veriheal now offers thorough and informative consults with a licensed physician that 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!

Post Your Comments

david bell says:

December 5, 2019 at 11:38 pm

ther is a difference between sativa & Indica have difference between affects, 52 years have definately proven that .

Lauren says:

December 6, 2019 at 2:58 pm

Hello David, while you are on the right track, we would still encourage you to explore in-depth scholarly research. The Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis categories are merely ways to identify the plant species. However, specific cannabinoids and terpenes can be more or less associated with each species. For instance, the terpene myrcene is prevalent in Indica dominant strains which can explain the ‘couchlock’ effect because myrcene is considered a sedative. But to rely solely on the Indica vs Sativa theory is no longer relevant because we now know there is something much deeper going on microscopically. When we can target these specific compounds, we can leverage the plant more efficiently.

Chane Leigh says:

January 12, 2020 at 4:13 am

Good morning.
I would also like to add that available research has proven that there are no longer pure sativas and indicas due to, like you said, the many years that it has been around. Cannabis is so interbred that there are no samples of a pure indica or sativa around. Most of what is available has properties of both. An indica looking plant can have sativa properties and visa versa. Thus making those categories nothing more than a method of seperating plant species.

Colin Wintermyer says:

February 15, 2020 at 2:19 pm

Excellent article! Thank you Lauren! Looking forward to reading more in the future.

jerhenz says:

November 6, 2020 at 7:34 am

Growing for years I know that CBD production continues while THC degrades, this changes the balance of both labels traits as the flowers develop and age on the plant. This can cause a strain to produce different effects even using clone simply by harvest timing.

RUE says:

February 26, 2021 at 6:41 am

Just read article ( indica/ sativa terpenoids) very informative, I got a lot out of it . Glad to know I wasn’t to far off.Say Lo you got a good platform.


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