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Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference Between Cannabis Types?

September 20, 2018

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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 two of these three cannabis types (indica and sativa) as a standard for predicting effects. Here’s what is generally accepted as true among cannabis consumers.

  • Indica strains are physically sedating, perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed.
  • Sativa strains are energizing with uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects.
  • Hybrid strains are a balance of indica and sativa effects.

This belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is so deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture that budtenders typically begin their strain recommendations by asking you which of these three types you prefer.

But if you look at the chemical “ingredients” inside of indicas and sativas – that is, terpenes and cannabinoids (more on that below) – you’ll notice there aren’t clear patterns to explain why one type would be inherently sedating and the other uplifting. We know that indica and sativa cannabis strains can look differently, but this distinction is primarily only useful to cannabis growers.

sativa vs indica chart

indica vs sativa chart

To find a strain that will provide the desired effect, your best bet is to understand which chemical ingredients make up that strain. Using Leafly’s Cannabis Guide, you can rely on simple shapes and colors to visually understand what your favorite strains look like, chemically speaking. And when you use the chemical ingredients of a strain to guide your purchasing decision, you’re more likely to find the types of strains that agree with your body. You can learn more about how the Cannabis Guide works in this walkthrough.

In this article, we’ll explore how the words “indica” and “sativa” made it into the vernacular of cannabis consumers worldwide, and to what extent they’re actually meaningful when choosing a strain.

Indica vs. sativa effects: What does the research say?

The indica, sativa and hybrid system is no doubt convenient, especially when first entering the vast and overwhelming world of cannabis. With so many new strains and products to choose from, where else are we to begin?

A more useful starting point when thinking about the effects of strains would be cannabinoids and terpenes, two words you should put into your. back pocket if you haven’t already. We will get to know these terms shortly.

But first, we asked two prominent cannabis researchers if the sativa/indica classification should have any bearing on a consumer’s strain selection. Ethan Russo is a neurologist whose research in cannabis psychopharmacology is respected worldwide, and Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., is a chemist who founded the first independent testing lab to analyze cannabis terpenes in a commercial capacity, The Werc Shop.

“The way that sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense,” Russo told Leafly. “The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

Raber agreed, and when asked if budtenders should be guiding consumers with terms like “indica” and “sativa,” he replied, “There is no factual or scientific basis for making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which methods, at which specific doses, to which types of [consumers].”

What this means is not all sativas will energize you, and not all indicas will sedate you. You may notice a tendency for so-called sativas to be uplifting or indicas to be relaxing, especially when we expect to feel one way or the other. Just note that there is no hard-and-fast rule and chemical data doesn’t reflect a clear pattern.

What is hybrid weed?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it 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.

Examples of hybrid strains:

If Indica and Sativa aren’t predictive of effects, then what is?

The effects of different strains of weed depend on a number of different factors, including the product’s chemical profile, your unique biological tolerance, dosage and consumption method. It also depends on the cannabinoid profile and terpenes of the strain. If you understand how each of these factors change the experience, you’ll have the best chance of finding a strain that is perfect for you.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD (the two most common) 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:

  • 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.

thc dominant vs balanced thc cbd vs cbd dominant

It’s worth noting that both indica and sativa strains exhibit theses different cannabinoid profiles.  “Initially most people thought higher CBD levels caused sedation, and that CBD was more prevalent in indica cultivars, which we now know is most definitely not the case,” Raber told Leafly.

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.

“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects,” Raber said. “Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids.”

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

sativa-strains

Three sativas in the Cannabis Guide, all with very different cannabinoid and terpene profiles, meaning each will likely give different effects.

If you can, smell the cannabis strains you’re considering for purchase. Find the aromas that stand out to you and give them a try. In time, your intuition and knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes will guide you to your favorite strains and products.

Biology, dosing and consumption method of cannabis

Lastly, consider the following questions when choosing the right strain or product for you.

  • 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.

CBD vs THC in indicas, sativas and hybrids

Could it be that indica and sativa cannabis strains feel different because they produce different levels of THC and CBD on average? To find out, we used lab-sourced data to determine the average abundance of each cannabinoid across sativa, indica and hybrid strains (excludes CBD-dominant and balanced strains)

strain-thc-content

Taking the average THC levels across indica, sativa, and hybrid strains, we can see that THC-Dominant strains- regardless of their plant type – present approximately the same average and rage of THC. So it’s unlikely THC accounts for perceived differences between indicas, sativas and hybrids.

But are there any notable differences in CBD abundance for CBD-containing indica, sativa and hybrid strains?

strain-cbd-content

Once again, there are very little differences on average between indica, sativa and hybrid CBD levels.

So if differences in cannabinoid profiles don’t tell the story behind the perceived differences of indica, sativa, and hybrid strains, you might wonder if there’s another chemical explanation.

Terpenes in indica, sativa, and hybrid strains

We know that terpenes are responsible for the different aromas found in cannabis and that, according to early research, they may deliver unique therapeutic effects. But to what extent do they make a strain energizing or sedating? And are there patterns that could explain why indicas and sativas sometimes feel different?

Let’s take a look at lab data illustrating terepne trends among indicas, sativas, and hybrids

terpenes in marijuana strains

Above, you’ll find the levels at which indica, sativa, and hybrid strains tend to produce common terpenes. They tend to present relatively similar patterns in terpene profiles with some interesting points of variation—one of which is terpinolene.

Terpinolene is a terpene found at high levels in only a small subset of cannabis strains, most of which are sativas and hybrids. Some terpinolene-dominant strains you’ve probably seen or heard of include Dutch Treat, Jack Herer, Golden Goat, and Ghost Train Haze. You’ll find terpinolene in many strains related to these, like Jack crosses (e.g., XJ-13, J1, Chernobyl) or Golden Goat hybrids (e.g., Golden Pineapple, Golden Ticket), indicating that there may be genetic consistency.

Still, a majority of sativa strains are not terpinolene-dominant. But if you’ve tried terpinolene-dominant strains in the past, you’ll have likely noticed they’re similar in effect. What this suggests is that strains with similar cannabinoid and terpene combinations may offer more reliable consistency in effects. Terpene profiles also allow us to deepen our understanding of potential variations within each cannabis type. Let’s take three hybrid strains for example—ACDC, Chernobyl, and OG Kush.

hybrid cannabis strains

Although each categorically identify as “hybrids,” they’re vastly different strains on a chemical level. ACDC is a gentle CBD strain commonly chosen by those who are sensitive to THC and its anxious side effects. Chernobyl is a blissful and uplifting strain that is preferred by many for daytime activities. OG Kush delivers a heavy-handed punch of euphoria that is commonly chosen by seasoned smokers or reserved for evening sessions.

Strain NameStrain TypeTHCCBDHelps with
Sour Dieselsativa18.5%creativity, depression,
Green Cracksativa17%energy, uplifting,
Lemon Hazesativa19%fatigue, pain,
Candylandsativa18.5%socializing, relaxation
Purple Punchindica18.5%stress, euphoria
Pennywiseindica7%8%relaxation, anxiety,
Northern Lightsindica11%inflammation, pain,
GMO Cookiesindica24%pain, insomnia,
Bubba KushBubba Kushindica17%appetite, pain,
GG4GG4hybrid20%insomnia, stress,
Harle-Tsuhybrid9%stress, relaxation,
Sherberthybrid18.5%stress, creativity,
Cannatonichybrid5.5%10%pain, focus,
Blue Dreamhybrid16%relaxation, euphoria,

By going a step beyond their indica, sativa, or hybrid classification to consider cannabinoids and terpenes, you’re more likely to identify the specific strains you like or don’t like.

Indica and sativa: Origin and evolution of the terms

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 psychoactive varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

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.

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

  • “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.
  • “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.

With the mass commercialization of cannabis, the taxonomical distinctions between cannabis species and subspecies got turned on its head and calcified. But now that you understand that there’s more to a strain than its indica, sativa, or hybrid designation, it’s worth thinking about how to shop for the right strain on your next dispensary visit.

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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