Indica vs. sativa: understanding the differences between weed types
When browsing cannabis strains or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you’ll notice that strains are commonly broken up into three groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Most consumers and budtenders use these weed types to predict effects, but are they accurate?
Science is pointing to a better way of determining the effects a cannabis strain will have on you: cannabinoids and terpenes, the compounds that make up a particular strain’s chemical profile.
So why do smokers and budtenders alike still use indica, sativa, and hybrid instead of the cannabinoid and terpene model?
There’s a big push in the cannabis industry to disavow the indica/sativa/hybrid classification system because it is not based in data and science—the terms are botanical names that refer to a plant’s structure, not the effects it produces.
However, most of the cannabis industry, including shops where you buy weed, is still stuck in classifying strains as either indicas, sativas, or hybrids for one main reason: It’s easy. Give a consumer three options—up, down, or in-between—and you can easily explain how a certain strain will make them feel and sell a product. Like it or not, the indica, sativa, hybrid classification system is still entrenched in the world.
Both models have value, and consumers of all levels can use both. For an easier, more general way to pick a weed strain and its effects, the indica/sativa/hybrid model may work for you. Once comfortable with cannabis, you may want to dig into the nuances of weed a bit more, and learn about chemical profiles, cannabinoids, and terpenes—our preferred method.
Let’s look at the differences between indicas and sativas, and the usefulness of the two classification systems.
Indica vs. sativa: understanding the basics
The common understanding of indicas and sativas is 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 sativas don’t necessarily energize all consumers. The origins of the two terms are actually rooted in botany, not effects, and describe the physical structure of a plant. On top of that, every person has a different body chemistry, so a strain can affect each person differently.
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, but the science doesn’t support that.
The origin of indica and sativa
In 1753, Carl Linnaeus published Species Plantarum, classifying all cannabis plants under one group, “Cannabis sativa L.,” with “Cannabis” as the genus, “sativa” as the species, and “L.” indicating Linnaeus’ system. “Sativa” comes from the Latin “sativum,” meaning “cultivated.”
French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck updated the naming in 1785 with two distinct species: “Cannabis sativa,” a taller, lankier, and more fibrous plant, and “Cannabis indica,” a shorter, stouter, and more psychoactive plant, its name meaning “from India,” where it was thought to originate.
These definitions largely refer to each weed type’s physical structure and are still used today.
Typically thought to be energizing, sativas originally grew in warm, humid climates, growing long and lanky so they can dry out and not absorb so much humidity. Their warm climate also means they can take a long time to grow and flower, or produce buds, because the weather won’t get cold and rainy at the end of the growing season.
Typically said to be relaxing, indicas originally grew in cold, northern climates. They grew short and dense because of their environment, and their growing life cycle is shorter so they can get harvested before the cold and wet of fall and winter set in.
As a side note, what we call “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties of cannabis harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, CBD, and novel cannabinoids such as delta-8. Hemp’s fiber can be used to make materials and textiles, its seeds can be eaten, and CBD and other novel cannabinoids can be extracted from it. Legally, hemp is any cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC.
Indica, sativa, and hybrid vs. cannabinoids and terpenes
Weed is incredibly nuanced. Each strain has its own chemical profile that will interact differently with each person’s body chemistry—the same strain could affect you and your smoking buddy completely differently.
As weed nerds here at Leafly, we prefer the more complex and specific model of determining a strain’s effects by looking at its mix of cannabinoids and terpenes (more below). But the indica/sativa/hybrid model is a basic, quick and easy way to get a general sense of how a strain will hit you. Just know that it isn’t exact.
Leafly’s own strain database uses the cannabinoid and terpene model, compiling the chemical profiles of thousands of strains using data from cannabis testing labs all over the country.
This method is a little more complex, but don’t let data scare you—once you find a strain you like, you can dial in your cannabis experience and find a strain that’s best for you.
How to use the indica, sativa, hybrid method
Had a long day and want to chill out? Need to do some spring cleaning or get a project done? Talking to your local budtender, they will tell you:
- Indicas are calm and relaxing, great for chilling out at the end of the night, watching a movie or listening to music, taking a nap, or just staring at the wall.
- Sativas are energetic and will make you productive. They’re great for physical activity, going for a hike, completing a task, cleaning, and anything that requires focus.
- Hybrid strains offer a mix of indica- and sativa-like effects.
Broadly speaking, you’ll see a lot of consistency to the idea that indicas are relaxing and sativas are energetic in Leafly’s own Top 100 cannabis strains: Most of the strains in the “sleepy” and “relaxed” categories are indicas, while most of the “energetic” strains are sativas.
Easy, right? Now let’s dial in that process.
Cannabinoids and terpenes
So if indica and sativa aren’t the best predictors of effects, what are?
The better way to pinpoint effects of different weed strains is to talk about their mix of cannabinoids and terpenes, or the chemical compounds in it. These compounds combine to create the entourage effect, leading to the feeling of being high.
What are cannabinoids?
The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create unique effects, and the primary ones are cannabinoids. THC and CBD are the two most common cannabinoids and are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.
- THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the compound that most think of when talking about weed—it’s what makes you feel 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.
What are terpenes?
If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes, the 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.
There are many types of terpenes found in cannabis, but these four are the most common:
One question yet to be answered by research is how terpenes—and different combinations of terpenes—shape the effects of different cannabis strains. So while cannabinoids are the primary step in determining how a strain will make you feel, for example, whether you want THC or CBD in a strain, or both, terpenes add a lot to effects as well.
How to use the cannabinoid and terpene method
When choosing a cannabis strain, instead of thinking in terms of an indica or sativa, the better way is to think of weed is in terms of cannabinoids and terpenes, or a strain’s chemical profile (another name for this is “chemovars”).
Cannabis strains are broken down into three broad chemical profile types, or chemovars:
- Type I: high THC, low CBD
- Type II: balanced, or equal parts of THC and CBD (like 1:1 cannabis strains)
- Type III: high CBD, low THC
These terms are out there in the industry, but aren’t commonly used—you likely won’t hear a budtender using them, and most customers don’t walk into a weed shop asking for a “type II” strain; they’ll ask for a “balanced” or “1:1” strain.
Step 1: Pick a cannabinoid
To use the cannabinoid and terpene model to pick a strain, start by considering how much THC and CBD you want in your strain.
THC-dominant strains (Type I) are high THC/low CBD, and are great for people seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more.
Balanced THC/CBD strains, or 1:1 strains (Type II), contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These strains tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis’ signature high.
CBD-dominant strains (Type III) are high CBD/low THC, and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needing clear-headed symptom relief because of their low levels of THC. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side affects associated with THC, try a strain with high levels of CBD.
Step 2: Pick some terpenes
Take note of the terpenes in some of your favorite strains. You can find a strain’s terpene profile in Leafly’s strain database, and many products include this information as well.
For example, GSC is primarily composed of caryophyllene, with smaller amounts of myrcene, and limonene. If you like GSC, you may like strains with that similar mix of terpenes, such as GMO Cookies or OG Kush. Conversely, if you find a strain you don’t like, it’s highly likely you won’t like strains with that similar terpene profile.
Step 3: Use Leafly’s strain database
As previously mentioned, Leafly’s own strain database is based on the cannabinoid and terpene model. It’s the more accurate of the two models because it relies on data from cannabis testing labs.
Weed has to be tested before it can be sold in a dispensary, ostensibly for pesticides and contaminants, but sometimes also for its cannabinoid and terpene levels. Leafly uses that data to power our strain database and strain search tool, giving consumers a variety of related strains to choose from and explore once they find a strain they like.
More considerations when choosing between indicas and sativas
Other factors play into how a strain will affect you. Consider the following when looking for a cannabis strain or product.
Everyday smokers will have a much higher tolerance than occasional smokers and can often consume a lot more weed, or stronger weed, without feeling effects. If you don’t smoke a lot, remember the saying: “start low, go slow.”
A strain’s potency and how much you consume, known as dosage, will greatly affect a cannabis experience.
Many popular strains at dispensaries can be potent, and a strain packing 25% THC might not be as enjoyable as one with 16% THC. There’s no shame in opting for a low THC percentage—find the right level for you and your ideal experience.
Additionally, taking a couple puffs and smoking an entire joint will produce much different effects, and a different intensity of effects. If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses.
Everyone’s body chemistry is different, and it’s hard to know how a strain will affect each individual. Even if you consume as frequently as someone else, your bodies could react to cannabis much differently. A friend may be able to burn down a whole joint, but maybe a puff or two are sufficient for you.
If you’re susceptible to anxiety or other negative side effects of THC, try a strain high in CBD.
Set and setting
Aside from tolerance, dosage, and body chemistry, your mindset and environment when consuming weed—known as set and setting—are crucial to enjoying cannabis. If you’re having a bad day or are nervous about trying weed, consuming it may give you negative effects. Additionally, if you’re not a social person, smoking in a big crowd may also give you negative feelings.
Set and setting depend entirely on the individual. Some people thrive in social settings, some don’t. Some prefer smoking in the comfort of their home, while others enjoy consuming out in nature.
How you consume weed will also determine how a strain affects you. One puff on a vape is generally thought to be lighter and deliver less effects than one puff of a joint. Doing dabs will produce intense effects immediately, and generally isn’t for beginners.
If you want long-lasting effects, consider edibles, and again, start low, and go slow.
Be mindful of any medical conditions you have, or if you are taking any medication, and how they might interact with cannabis. When in doubt, talk to your doctor or a medical professional before trying cannabis. They may have suggestions or recommendations for you to complement your existing medical or health regimen.
Desired effect, mood, or experience
If you’re hoping for a specific experience, like relaxing or watching a movie, or if you’re looking to treat an ailment like insomnia or nausea, use Leafly’s strain lists to help select a strain, or ask your local budtender for recommendations on what you’re looking for.
Remember that not all indicas are sleepy or heavy, and not all sativas are energetic or uplifting.
Note favorite and least favorite strains
Keep track of what weed strains you like and don’t like to explore (or avoid) similar strains. If you like a strain with a certain cannabinoid level and terpene profile, you’ll likely enjoy another strain with similar levels.
Additionally, strains in the same family, or with the same lineage, often have similar chemical profiles—GSC is derived from OG Kush, and is parent to GMO Cookies, Sherbert, and many more, so they’ll all have similar terpenes.
Summary of sativas, indicas, and hybrids
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 or motivation.
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.
Popular sativa strains
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 body effects, for example, heavy limbs or a tingly face. They also report indicas are helpful in aiding relaxation and curbing insomnia.
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.
Popular indica strains
There are many indica strains, many of which you may be familiar with. Check your local dispensary for these popular indica weed strains.
What are hybrid strains?
Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis, 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 types.
Since hybrid weed strains derive genetics from both indicas and sativas, their effects pull from both indica and sativa strains. Common effects include feeling happy, euphoric, uplifting, energetic, relaxing—it all depends on which hybrid you consume and what effects its parent strains produce.
Looking at a hybrid’s lineage—its parent strains—may give you a better sense of what kind of effects it will produce. For example, if it has more indica in its lineage, it might have effects more associated with those strains, but this is not always the case.
Popular hybrid strains
There’s certainly no shortage of hybrid strains on the market, and some of the most popular you’ll come across are also the most iconic.
Popular strains by strain type and effect
|Strain Name||Strain Type||THC||CBD||Helps with|
|Sour Diesel||sativa||18%||less than 1%||creativity, depression, anxiety|
|Green Crack||sativa||17%||less than 1%||energy, stress, euphoria|
|Lemon Haze||sativa||18%||less than 1%||happiness, fatigue, pain|
|Charlotte's Web||sativa||less than 1%||13%||pain, stress, anxiety|
|Candyland||sativa||18%||less than 1%||socializing, relaxation, energy|
|Purple Punch||indica||19%||less than 1%||relaxation, stress, euphoria|
|Pennywise||indica||8%||8%||relaxation, anxiety, pain|
|Northern Lights||indica||16%||less than 1%||stress, pain, anxiety|
|GMO Cookies||indica||25%||less than 1%||pain, insomnia, relaxation|
|Bubba Kush||indica||17%||less than 1%||appetite, pain, insomnia|
|GG4||hybrid||20%||less than 1%||relaxation, happiness, stress|
|Sour Tsunami||hybrid||less than 1%||12%||pain, stress, anxiety|
|Sherbert||hybrid||18%||less than 1%||happiness, creativity, relaxation|
|Cannatonic||hybrid||5%||10%||pain, focus, stress|
|Blue Dream||hybrid||18%||less than 1%||relaxation, euphoria, happiness|
Indica vs. sativa FAQs
Here are answers to some common questions about indica and sativa marijuana.
Is there a difference between indicas and sativas?
“Indica” and “sativa” are botanical terms referring to a plant’s physical structure. As far as effects, indicas are thought to be sedating and relaxing, while sativas are thought to be uplifting and energetic.
Do sativas give you energy?
While there is no scientific evidence that sativas give you energy, they are believed to be uplifting and euphoric.
Do sativas give you a body high?
Sativas are commonly thought to provide a head and body high, although every consumer’s body chemistry is different.
Do sativas give you the munchies?
Sativa strains may help stimulate appetite and give you the munchies, but it depends on your body chemistry.
Will sativas keep you up at night?
Sativas are thought to be energizing so they may keep you up at night, but it depends on your body chemistry.
Do indicas make you sleepy?
In general, indicas are thought to be relaxing, which can make you feel sleepy.
Do indicas give you a body high?
Some indica strains are known for delivering heavy body highs.
Will indicas make me feel paranoid?
If you’re prone to anxiety or paranoia when sober, indica or sativa strains may cause negative effects, but it depends on your body chemistry.
Will indicas turn my eyes red?
Indicas or sativas may make your eyes turn red, depending on your body.
- Scholler DJ, et. al. Use patterns, beliefs, experiences, and behavioral economic demand of indica and sativa cannabis: A cross-sectional survey of cannabis users. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33856822/
- Clarke RC, Merlin MD. Cannabis Evolution and Ethnobotany. UC Press, 2013. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275175754_Cannabis_Evolution_and_Ethnobotany
- Russo, EB. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol, 2011. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21749363/
- John M McPartland JM, Small E. A classification of endangered high-THC cannabis (Cannabis sativa subsp. indica) domesticates and their wild relatives. PhytoKeys, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32296283/