Categorizing cannabis strains by species — sativa or indica — is very common among consumers, especially those who are new to the herb. Ask your friends and they will tell you right away that you can get an indica or sativa (or hybrid strains). They’ll probably think that sativa makes you feel invigorated and uplifted, while indica induces a couch-locking high and a strong case of the munchies While this is true to some extent, this classification is oversimplified — the geographic origins of the plant doesn’t have much to do with determining its effects.
So what’s the real difference between sativa vs indica cannabis strains? We’ll discuss it in this article — and blow the old system wide open. Are you ready to learn the truth?
Sativa vs Indica: An Overview of the Differences Between the Two Cannabis Species
Despite coming from the same plant family, sativa and indica originated in various parts of the world and thus have different characteristics and effects. Below we give you a detailed breakdown of the differences between the two species.
1. Geographic Origins of Sativa vs. Indica
Cannabis sativa plants are native to countries near the equator, such as Mexico, Colombia, and Thailand. Some signs of sativas are visible in Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Cannabis indica plants belong to colder regions with higher altitudes and mountainous terrains. These strains most likely originated from Afghanistan, Morocco, and Turkey. Many indica varieties have the “kush” end added to their name because this type of cannabis comes from the Hindu Kush region in the Middle East.
2. Visual Characteristics of Sativa vs. Indica
Cannabis sativa plants are taller than indica strains. Some varieties can reach up to 25 feet. A typical sativa strain has thin leaves and branches, with fluffy, conical shapes. They also produce soft seeds. Indica plants grow short and bushy, with densely packed flowers. They’re smaller than sativa strains, reaching only 6 feet in height. They also grow broader leaves and resemble a bush rather than a tree. This makes for a great support for densely packed resinous buds, which are definitely much more appealing than most sativas.
3. Growing Habits of Sativa vs. Indica
Due to their above-average height, cannabis sativa plants tend to grow better in outdoor conditions. They need about 60–90 days from flowering to be ready for the harvest — which is longer than with indica plants — but they provide the grower with greater yields. Cannabis indica plants, on the other hand, are better suited for indoor setups as they grow shorter and flower faster than sativas. The obvious drawback is that they give smaller yields but tend to be denser and coated with more resin. Indica plants should be ready for harvest within 40–50 days after entering the flowering stage.
4. Effects of Sativa vs. Indica
Important note: when reading this section, please, keep in mind that this is a very generalized division. You can use it as a good point of reference, but there are more factors at play here than just the plant’s geographic origins. We’ll get to that later in the article Cannabis sativa strains are believed to induce an invigorating, uplifting cerebral type of high, which is why they’re widely used as the go-to wake n’ bake flowers. Sativas are also helpful for physical activities, social gatherings, and creative work. They’re appreciated for their ability to promote chattiness, a positive state of mind, laughter, and a free-flowing stream of consciousness. When it comes to the effects of cannabis indica plants, they usually offer a more physical type of high and a noticeable boost of appetite. They are also more sedating than sativa strains, so cannabis consumers use them as a sleep aid or to relax after a stressful day. When consumed in larger quantities, indica strains may induce a heavy couch-lock effect, so they’re not recommended for daytime use, especially if you have something serious planned ahead that day.
5. Medical Uses of Sativa vs. Indica
Cannabis is a versatile medicine, with each species offering their own range of medical applications. Due to the energizing and euphoric character of cannabis sativa strains, they’re well suited for treating anxiety, mood swings, depression, chronic stress, attention disorders, hyperactivity, fatigue, and cognitive dysfunctions. Cannabis indica strains may be a great choice for those struggling with physical ailments, such as chronic pain, inflammation, muscle cramps, tension, seizures, multiple sclerosis, or fibromyalgia. Because indica flowers are so relaxing, they also provide relief from anxiety disorders and PTSD. But most importantly, their sedating nature is great for tackling sleep problems.
What’s The Real Difference Between Sativa vs Indica?
The indica vs sativa classification is a very convenient way to predict the effects of specific strains, especially for those just getting started with the herb. As mentioned, this may be a good point of reference to begin your adventure with cannabis, but if you want to be able to actually predict the high you may get from your bud of choice, there are more factors to consider. In fact, the sativa vs. indica division should have no influence on your strain selection. Here’s what Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and highly revered expert in cannabinoids, says about this system:
“The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense. 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.”
Another expert, Jeffrey Raber, Ph. D., a chemist and founder of the first independent laboratory to analyze cannabis terpenes, follows his colleague, saying:
“There is no factual or scientific basis to 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 fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers].”
So, in short, not all sativas will improve your mood and give you a boost of energy, and not all indicas will induce an unexpected nap. Of course, there’s a pattern for the sativa plants to be more invigorating or for the indica strains give a more mellow type of high, especially when you expect to feel that way. Nevertheless, there’s no hard evidence that would support the consistency of this pattern.
If the Indica vs Sativa Classification Isn’t Accurate, then What Is?
Cannabis is a complex plant. The effects of any given strain — be it sativa or indica — will depend on an array of different factors, including:
- The strain’s chemical composition
- Your unique biochemistry
- Your tolerance to THC
- The amount of consumed cannabis
- Route of administration
With that said, let’s bring forth the most important factor.
1. Ratio Between Cannabinoids
The cannabis plant is comprised of over 113 cannabinoids that engage with one another to create a unique synergy of effects. THC and CBD are the two most abundant cannabinoids that are responsible for the medical and recreational benefits of cannabis. THC is the cannabinoid that gets the user high. The cannabis high involves a set of psychoactive effects, including euphoria, deep relaxation, hunger, as well as relief from symptoms like pain, inflammation, stress, and nausea. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. It won’t get you high, but it also has a range of benefits; CBD may reduce inflammation, anxiety, seizures, pain, and protect the brain cells from damage. Based on the above information, you should choose your next strain following these categories:
- THC-dominant strains: these are the most common picks among recreational consumers seeking the plant’s psychoactive effects. However, they’re also selected by medical marijuana patients to treat anxiety, insomnia, cancer, or depression. They work better with people who can handle the high from THC. If the psychoactive effects of cannabis tend to overwhelm you, then you need a strain with higher concentrations of CBD.
- CBD-dominant strains:these flowers have significant CBD levels with only small amounts of THC. They are widely used among people who seek relief from their symptoms without getting high.
- 50/50 strains: Some strains, both sativa and indica, come with balanced ratios of CBD and THC. Such varieties induce mild euphoria followed by symptom relief. If you’re a new consumer and need an introduction to marijuana’s classic high, opt for evenly-balanced buds.
But, there are more compounds in cannabis than just cannabinoids. Let’s take a look at terpenes.
2. Terpene Content
Terpenes are volatile molecules that give plants and fruits their unique aromas and flavors. They occur in pepper, hops, lavender flowers, pepper, and cannabis. However, terpenes are also responsible for the unique effects of specific strains. If you’ve ever tried aromatherapy, you should be familiar with the basics behind terpenes. Dr. Raber highlights terpenes as one of the key factors in driving the uplifting or mellowing effects in cannabis.
“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.”
While the consistency of certain effects can’t be observed in the sativa vs. indica morphology, terpenes actually show a more reliable correlation. For example, strains high in limonene tend to stave off stress and reduce anxiety while inducing cerebral stimulation. Strains with high linalool content are known to be more sedative than other flowers. Pinene, the terpene with a distinctive exotic aroma, may give the user an energizing and creative buzz. That’s how savvy consumers choose their strains. If they smell a flower and like the aroma, it’s a good sign they’ve found a good match. As you gain more experience in tasting different strains, you’ll develop your own preferences.
3. Unique Genetics
There’s a third type of cannabis strains — hybrids. A hybrid strain is made by cross-breeding two (or more) different parent strains. These flowers fall somewhere between the sativa-indica spectrum, depending on the genes they acquire from their parents. In fact, pure sativa and pure indica strains are in the minority. Most flowers available for sale are considered hybrids. We can break down hybrid strains into three categories:
- Sativa-dominant hybrids
- Indica-dominant hybrids
- 50/50 hybrids
Before we make it to the end, there’s one more thing to consider when predicting the effects of different weed strains.
4. Route of Administration
There are many ways to consume cannabis — each of them produces slightly different effects. For example, smoking dry flowers will give you more of a heavy high. It’s easy to go overboard with smoked cannabis because the effects are noticeable within minutes after inhalation. Due to that, users are more likely to experience the side effects of THC. If you want to inhale cannabis but without the risk associated with smoking, you may try vaping your greens. Vaporization heats the herb to certain temperatures where cannabinoids and terpenes are released into aromatic and flavorful vapor. Vaporization also delivers more active compounds to your body, so the high is longer-lasting but cleaner. Long-lasting effects can also be achieved with cannabis edibles. This route of administration ensures that cannabinoids will be released gradually, which is a great option for people with chronic conditions. However, since edibles need to pass through the digestive system first, they have a delayed onset. The effects of an edible may need between 40–90 minutes to kick in. When using edibles, make sure to start with low doses, as eating too much THC is one of the major causes of emergency room visits among cannabis users.
Final Thoughts: Which Strain Will Be Your Next Choice?
While selecting strains using the sativa vs. indica division can be helpful for determining a plant’s genetic heritage, growth habits, and potential yields, it isn’t an accurate predictor of its physical and psychological effects. Next time you go to a dispensary, make sure to ask your budtender for the ratios of cannabinoids and terpenes in the strain you want to buy. This way, you’ll be able to get a good match for your needs and preferences. Do you choose strains using the sativa vs. indica standards? Or do you pay attention to what cannabinoids and terpenes occur in your flowers?