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Indica vs. sativa: understanding the differences between weed types

September 20, 2018

When browsing cannabis strains or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you may notice strains are commonly broken up into three distinct groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Most consumers have used these weed types as a touchstone for predicting effects, but what’s the difference between them?



Indica vs. sativa: understanding the basics

When cannabis consumers think of “indica” vs. “sativa” marijuana strains, they generally think that indica strains are physically sedating, perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed, and sativa strains are energizing with uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects. Hybrid strains are thought to have a mix of indica and sativa effects.

But indica doesn’t always mean “in da couch,” and sativa doesn’t necessarily energize all of its consumers. As research opens up and we learn more about the cannabis plant, it turns out the chemical compounds in each strain—the cannabinoids and terpenes in it—determine the effects you’ll feel, not whether it’s an indica or sativa. In fact, the origins of those two terms are rooted in botany, not effects.

However, even today, the belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is still deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture. If you’ve ever been to a dispensary, you’ve likely heard a budtender begin a strain recommendation by asking which of those three types you prefer.

Let’s look at where the terms “indica,” “sativa,” and “hybrid” actually come from, and how a cannabis strain’s chemical profile interacts with your unique body to make you feel effects.

Origin of ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’

The words “indica” and “sativa” were introduced in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The term “sativa” described hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia, where it was cultivated for its fiber and seeds. Cannabis indica refers to the intoxicating varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

Here’s how terms have shifted since their earliest botanical definitions:

  • Today, “sativa” refers to tall, narrow-leaf varieties of cannabis, thought to induce energizing effects. However, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) varieties were originally Cannabis indica ssp. indica.
  • “Indica” has come to describe stout, broad-leaf plants, thought to deliver sedating effects. These broad-leaf drug (BLD) varieties are technically Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.
  • What we call “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.

Although the cannabis varieties we consume largely stem from Cannabis indica, both terms are used—even if erroneously—to organize the thousands of strains circulating the market today.

What impacts strain effects?

So if indica and sativa aren’t the best predictors of effects, what is?

The effects of different strains of weed depend on a number of different factors, but mainly on the cannabinoids and terpenes in the strain, or the chemical compounds in it.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids. THC and CBD are the two most common cannabinoids and are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.

  • THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) makes us feel hungry and high, and relieves symptoms like pain and nausea.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound known to alleviate anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other medical ailments.
Related
A list of major cannabinoids in cannabis and their effects

Cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids, but start by familiarizing yourself with THC and CBD first. Instead of choosing a strain based on its indica or sativa classification, consider basing your selection on these three buckets instead (both indica and sativa strains exhibit these different cannabinoid profiles):

  • THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side affects associated with THC, try a strain with higher levels of CBD.
  • CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needed clear-headed symptom relief.
  • Balanced THC/CBD strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis signature high.

Terpenes

If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in lavender flowers, oranges, hops, pepper, and of course, cannabis. Secreted by the same glands that ooze THC and CBD, terpenes are what make cannabis smell like berries, citrus, pine, fuel, etc.

One question yet to be answered by research is how terpenes—and different combinations of those terpenes – shape the effects of different cannabis strains.

There are many types of terpenes found in cannabis, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the most most common—especially myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, and terpinolene, since they’re the most likely to occur in pronounced levels in cannabis.

sativa-strains
Three sativas all have very different cannabinoid and terpene profiles, meaning each will likely give different effects.

Biology, dosing and consumption method of cannabis

Additionally, your tolerance to cannabis, the amount you consume (dosage), and the consumption method will also determine how a strain affects you. Consider the following questions when looking for the right strain or product.

  • How much experience do you have with cannabis? If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses.
  • Are you susceptible to anxiety or other side effects of THC? If so, try a strain high in CBD.
  • Do you want the effects to last a long time? If you do, consider edibles (starting with a low dose). Conversely, if you seek a short-term experience, use inhalation methods or a tincture.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a strain, but if you find that indica strains consistently deliver a positive experience, then by all means, stick to what you know. However, if you’re still searching for that ideal strain, these are important details to keep in mind.

What is a sativa?

While not all sativa marijuana strains will energize you, most consumers notice a tendency for sativas to produce a “head high,” an uplifting, stimulating effect. They also often report sativas as being helpful in mitigating stress or anxiety, and many consumers enjoy sativas to sharpen focus and boost creativity/motivation.

Sativa effects

Common effects associated with sativa strains include feeling happy, uplifting, euphoric, and energetic. Sativas are often thought of as “daytime” strains, used for feeling productive, creative, and focused, and for getting chores done.

There are many sativa strains to try, and you’ve likely heard of some of the most popular. Most dispensaries should stock at least some of these sativa weed strains as they’re generally a crowd-favorite.

What is an indica?

Not all indica strains will put you “in da couch,” but nevertheless, many consumers associate indicas with full-body effects, for example, heavy limbs or a tingly face. They also report indicas as being helpful in aiding relaxation and curbing insomnia.

Indica effects

Common effects associated with indica strains include feeling relaxed, euphoric, happy, and sleepy. Indicas are commonly known as “nighttime” strains, used for relaxing and unwinding at the end of the night.

There are many indica strains to try, many of which you may be familiar. Check your local dispensary for these popular indica weed strains.

What is hybrid?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it was historically done underground to evade authorities—strains that have pure indica or pure sativa lineages are rare. Most strains referred to as “indica” or “sativa” are, in fact, hybrids, with genetics inherited from both subspecies.

Hybrid effects

Since hybrid weed strains derive genetics from indicas and sativas, their ensuing effects can also pull from both indica and sativa strains. Common effects include happy, euphoric, uplifting, energetic, relaxing—it all depends on which hybrid you consume and what effects its “parent” strains are known to produce.

Looking at a hybrid’s lineage, its parent strains, may give you a better sense, of what kind of effects it will produce—if it has more indica in its lineage it might have effects more associated with those strains.

There’s certainly no shortage of hybrid strains on the market, and some of the most popular you’ll come across are also among the most iconic.

How to shop for cannabis without saying ‘indica’ or ‘sativa’

What’s important to you as a cannabis consumer shopping for a specific mood has everything to do with potency, dose, and chemical profile (i.e., cannabinoids and terpenes). That’s the beauty of the Leafly Cannabis Guide – it allows you to easily identify which strains are chemically similar, so you have a better chance of finding (or avoiding) particular chemical profiles.

Let’s say you’re prone to anxiety and looking to avoid an uncomfortable, racy experience. If you tell a budtender you hate sativas because they make you anxious, they may hand you a THC powerhouse like White Fire OG simply because it’s not a sativa. Meanwhile, a “sativa” like Harlequin—with low levels of THC and high levels of CBD—might actually be a better fit.

Although it isn’t as simple as grouping strains into the indica-sativa-hybrid triumvirate that has long been our compass while navigating menus, try using potency to guide you. You may find that a strain packing 25% THC isn’t as enjoyable as that very fragrant strain tapping in at 16%, or the balanced THC/CBD variety that provides 10% of each cannabinoid.

You might also find that you gravitate toward strains that express similar terpene profiles. For example, if you like the terpinolene-dominant Jack Herer, you’ll likely enjoy Golden Pineapple or XJ-13, which are also terpinolene-dominant. Finding the right strain for you requires a bit of trial and error. Still, if you’re new to cannabis, there are appropriate places to begin your search for that perfect experience.

Common questions and answers about strain types

Although there are plenty of resources for learning about the differences between cannabis types, sometimes you just want to know the basics. Below we have answered some of the most common questions we get from readers.

Is there really a difference between indica and sativa?

There is no difference in the effects of indica and sativa.

What is sativa used to treat?

Sativa strains used for medicinal purposes are believed to treat conditions related to depression, anxiety and pain. *

Does sativa give you energy?

While there is no scientific evidence that sativas give you energy, they are believed to be uplifting and euphoric.

Does sativa give you a body high?

Sativa may provide a cerebral head and body high, although more research is needed on this topic.

Does sativa give you the munchies?

Sativa strains may help stimulate your appetite and give you the munchies, but it depends on your body chemistry.

Will sativa keep you up at night?

Smoking sativa likely won’t keep you up at night like drinking a coffee late in the day would.

What is indica used to treat?

Indica strains used for medicinal purposes are believed to treat conditions related to insomnia, anxiety and inflammation.*

Does indica make you sleepy?

In general, indicas tend to be relaxing which can make people feel sleepy.

Does indica give you a body high?

Some indica strains are known for delivering heavy body highs.

Will indica make me feel paranoid?

If you’re prone to anxiety or paranoia while sober, indica strains may make your paranoia worse.

Will indica turn my eyes red?

There is no guarantee indica will or will not turn your eyes red.

Helpful beginner resources to get you started with cannabis:

Cannabis is a personal experience, and how you select it is, too. Understanding its nuances should help give you an alternative perspective on what qualities to look for in a strain. Some of you are happy to sit down with any strain, any time, and that’s okay. For others, this level of precision in strain selection is key to having a good experience—and feeling good is what cannabis is all about.

*Anyone using cannabis for medicinal purposes should only do so with the advice of a medical doctor. More research is needed to understand the exact effects, feelings and benefits of cannabis for pain management.

Bailey Rahn's Bio Image
Bailey Rahn

Bailey is a senior content manager at Leafly, specializing in strains and health. She's spent 7+ years researching cannabis products, spreading patients’ stories, and exploring healthy ways of integrating cannabis into daily life.

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