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 should you look for to understand strain effects?
The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but it isn’t really that simple.
Individual plants produce varying effects, even among the same type of cannabis. It all depends on the plant’s chemical composition and the growing technique used.
Instead of looking at the type alone — sativa or indica — look at the description the grower and dispensary provide.
Oftentimes, the plant types are broken down into specific chemovars, or breeds.
Chemovars are distinguished by their individual cannabinoid and terpene content. This “cannabinoid profile” will provide the user with the best information to help them determine which chemovar is best suited for them.
Relying on names does not provide the user with the necessary information to pick the correct profile. These compounds are what determine the chemovar’s overall effects.
Cannabis plants contain dozens of chemical compounds called cannabinoids.
These naturally occurring components are responsible for producing many of the effects — both negative and positive — of cannabis use.
Researchers still don’t understand what all of the cannabinoids do, but they have identified two main ones — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — as well as several less common compounds.
- THC. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis plants. It’s responsible for the “high” or state of euphoria associated with cannabis use. Levels of THC have been increasing as growers try to create hybrids with a greater concentration of the compound.
- CBD. CBD is non-impairing or non-euphoric. It doesn’t cause a “high.” However, it may produce many physical benefits, such as reducing pain and nausea, preventing seizures, and easing migraine.
- CBN. Cannabinol (CBN) is used to ease symptoms and side effects of neurological conditions, including epilepsy, seizures, and uncontrollable muscle stiffness.
- THCA. Tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA) is similar to THC, but it doesn’t cause any psychoactive effects. Its potential benefits include reducing inflammation caused by arthritis and autoimmune diseases. It may also help reduce symptoms of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
- CBG. Cannabigerol (CBG) is thought to help reduce anxiety and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
A great deal of attention is paid to the amount of THC and CBD in a given strain, but newer research suggests that terpenes may be just as impactful.
Terpenes are another naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant.
The terpenes present directly affect the plant’s smell. They may also influence the effects that specific strains produce.
According to Leafly, common terpenes include:
- Bisabolol. With notes of chamomile and tea tree oil, the terpene bisabolol is thought to help reduce inflammation and irritation. It may also have microbial and pain-reducing effects.
- Caryophyllene. The peppery, spicy molecule may help reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of depression, and improve ulcers.
- Linalool. Linalool is said to help improve relaxation and boost mood with its floral notes.
- Myrcene. The most common terpene, this earthy, herbal molecule may help reduce anxiety and insomnia so you can sleep better.
- Ocimene. This terpene produces notes of basil, mango, and parsley. Its primary effects may include easing congestion and warding off viruses and bacteria.
- Pinene. As the name suggests, this terpene produces an intense pine aroma. It may help boost memory, reduce pain, and ease some of the not-so-pleasant symptoms of THC, such as nausea and coordination problems.
- Terpinolene. Cannabis with this compound may smell like apples, cumin, and conifers. It may have sedative, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.
- Limonene. Bright, zippy citrus notes come from this terpene. It’s said to improve mood and reduce stress.
- Humulene. This terpene is deeply earthy and woody, like hops or cloves. Cannabis strains with this molecule may help reduce inflammation.
- Eucalyptol. With notes of eucalyptus and tea tree oil, this molecule is refreshing and invigorating. It may also help reduce inflammation and fight bacteria.
Indica vs. sativa FAQs
Although there are plenty of resources for learning about the differences between cannabis types, sometimes you just want to know the basics. Below are answers to some common questions about indica and sativa marijuana.
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.