Sativa vs Indica: Do you know the differences?

The classification “indica” and “sativa” is often used in the cannabis world to describe the sensations we can experience with each strain. “Indica” is attributed to relaxing and pain-relieving effects, while “sativa” is used to refer to a more mental and stimulating effect.

Today on the blog of Cannactiva sativa, we tell you the differences between indica vs. sativa, and how these differences affect their effects and therapeutic applications. But we also debunk some myths about the subject and explain why experts agree that this classification is outdated. Join us until the end of this topic, one of the most exciting in the cannabis world!

Introduction to Indica and Sativa concepts

For some, perfection would consist in the fact that when you buy buying cannabis flowers it would be possible to select the strain according to the precise effect one wishes to experience when consuming it. Thus, the designations “indica” and “sativa” are used to classify cannabis strains according to whether they provide different physical or mental effects. The “indica” is associated with bodily effects of relaxation, relief of pain and anxiety, and sleep. On the other hand, the “sativa” produces more cerebral effects, euphoria and creativity.

The classification “indica” and “sativa” refers to the effects of cannabis, not to distinct physical traits.

Nowadays, breeding has achieved such hybridization in cannabis that the classification between indica and sativa according to the appearance of the buds, shape, color or size, is totally wrong.

What are the differences between indica and sativa?

Different origins and morphological characteristics

The theory says that the “indica” varieties originated in the mountainous regions of the Himalayas, specifically in the Hindu Kush region (see the article on Hindu Kush ). The physical characteristics typically attributed to indica varieties are lower plants, with wide leaves, dense foliage and dense and compact buds (although, as we now know, this is not the case: in reality, there are cannabis with different characteristics and relaxing effects). In terms of effects, indicas offer a deep sense of relaxation, calm and tranquility.

The “indica” effect is one of deep relaxation and tranquility. Imagine yourself lying on the couch full of calm and inner peace.

On the other hand, “sativa” plants are native to equatorial regions such as Mexico, Thailand and Colombia. Physically, it has been said that they are taller plants, with narrower leaves and more elongated and airy buds (it is now known that this is not the case: there are cannabis with different morphology that gives cerebral effects). More mental, euphoric and stimulating effects are attributed to these sativa varieties.

The “sativa” effect is more mental, euphoric and stimulating. Like a spark that ignites your creativity and awakens your motivation.

Finally, there are the so-called hybrid varieties, which represent the perfect harmony between the effects of relaxation and motivation, and which present mixed qualities of the two classes.

We now know that the real origin of cannabis is in Central Asia, possibly in the foothills of the Himalayas, supported by biological and biochemical evidence. The different physical characteristics described in ancient times, depending on the origin, are related to the different crosses that had been produced in the different regions where the plant was cultivated.

Chemical composition: Content in cannabinoids and terpenes.

What there is a basis and consensus for classifying cannabis according to whether it is “indica” or “sativa” in effect is its chemical composition.

The effects of cannabis vary depending on the terpene and cannabinoid profile specific to each strain. Therefore, the chemical composition of the plant is a fundamental aspect for cannabis enthusiasts when choosing strains. It is not surprising that more and more stores are reporting not only the TAC(Total Active Cannabinoids), but also the profile of the majority terpenes present in each strain.

Indica varieties tend to have moderate levels of cannabidiol (CBD) but, above all, sedative terpenes, especially myrcene (but also others, such as linalool ). These components provide a relaxing body effect, which can be beneficial in relieving stress, insomnia and body pain. As for its content in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, indicas tend to have lower levels of THC, or more balanced with respect to CBD, which makes them less psychoactive and without intense euphoric or mental effects.

On the other hand, sativa strains tend to have higher levels of THC and stimulant terpenes, such as limonene, pinene and terpinolene. This contributes to its more euphoric brain effects and may be helpful in enhancing creativity, improving mood and combating fatigue. However, sativas with very high THC levels can cause intense psychoactive effects and may not be suitable for all users.

At this point, it should be clarified that not all cannabis is “indica” in terms of CBD content. We would like to quote neurologist and noted cannabis researcher Ethan Russo when he says that (1):

“The supposed sedation of so-called indica cannabis strains is mistakenly attributed to CBD content, but in reality CBD is stimulating in low and moderate doses! The sedation in the most common Cannabis strains is largely due to the myrcene content, a terpene with a sedative effect similar to a narcotic. Conversely, a high limonene content will improve mood, while the presence of the terpene alpha-pinene, may reduce THC-induced short-term memory impairment.”

This is evidence that not only cannabinoids are important, but that terpenes also play a very important, if not decisive, role in the “sativa” or “indica” effects of cannabis. This interaction between the different components of the plant is known as the entourage effect of cannabis .

Indica and sativa flavors: For experts only.

Just as cannabinoids have no odor, terpenes have no odor. terpenes are the aromatic compounds that are the protagonists of the flavor of our favorite strains.

The terpene compounds responsible for the indica effect tend to have sweet, citrus, fruity and floral aromatic profiles, while the sativa effect varieties produce terpenes that are more earthy, woody, resinous and diesel… But only hypothetically. Only the most trained cannabis connoisseurs would be able to distinguish an indica from a sativa by aroma alone, and they could easily err. Let’s see why.

To quote odor scientist Avery Gilbert, each fragrance has its own intensity curve, and the blend of terpenes creates a distinct olfactory perception that cannot be easily attributed to the smell of each terpene separately. This makes smell an unreliable technique for guessing whether the material will have an indica or sativa effect.

Therapeutic and recreational uses

Because of their relaxing and sedative properties, the “indica” varieties and their extracts are often used for more bodily effects, such as relieving stress, anxiety, muscle spasms, insomnia and chronic pain. They can also help relax muscles and promote physical and mental relaxation.

Sativa” strains are most popular with those looking for intense cerebral effects, creativity and an energy boost. They are used to improve mood, combat fatigue or to promote artistic activities and sociability.

In addition to the “pure” varieties, there are numerous indica and sativa hybrids on the market. The development of hybrid varieties seeks to combine the characteristics and benefits of both strains to adapt to the effects desired by users. Hybrids can have unique effect profiles, that balance the relaxation of the indicas and the stimulating effects of the sativas.

Two species: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

The designation “indica” and “sativa” maintains a certain relationship with the history of cannabis and its botanical designation. First, Carolus Linnaeus was the first to describe the cannabis plant cultivated in Europe, in 1753, which he baptized as Cannabis sativa (sativa means “cultivated” or “cultivated”) (2). Its appearance was sparsely branched and lanky, of great height, and among its uses was the production of grain and fiber. A few years later, in 1785, the botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck described what he believed to be another species of the genus Cannabis, with plants from India, which he called Cannabis indica (2). These were more compact in appearance, rounded and with highly developed inflorescences (large buds). We now know that the main difference between the cannabis plants described by Linnaeus and Lamarck at that time is due to the differences between hemp and marijuana. differences between hemp and marijuana we saw on a previous occasion.

Later, it was determined that botanically there is only one species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa, which would include both plants. This classification is still valid today, although there is some controversy, and some taxonomists include subspecies such as sativa, indica, ruderalis and afghanica (or kafiristanica). But what you should keep in mind is that the label “indica” or “sativa” refers only to the effects of the plant, not to the botanical name.

Flowering time and cultivation methods

Theoretically originating from cold, dry mountainous regions, “indica” varieties are said to be adapted to cold, short summers and have developed shorter flowering times and are said to be the most suitable for indoor cultivation. In contrast, sativas, growing in temperate climates, are said to have developed adaptive characteristics to survive in tropical and hot areas with long summers, such as greater height, larger internodal spacing, smaller buds and narrow leaves. These physical traits allow them to protect against threats such as mold and pests, which is why they are considered the best varieties for outdoor cultivation. Although, as you can imagine, this is quite imprecise.

Discussion on the differences between indica and sativa

If you came to this post looking for the differences between indica and sativa, you have already found them. But it would not be honest on our part to end here, because in reality there are many nuances that modify the theory about the differences between “indica” and “sativa”.

Indica and sativa: just to confuse us

All (or most) experts agree that the terms “indica” and “sativa” as classifications of cannabis are inaccurate or outdated. First, because it has been scientifically proven that the morphology of marijuana leaves or even cannabis flowers is not related to their phytochemical content. Therefore, to insinuate that a more compact or airy bud, or a more or less wide leaf, or that the appearance of a more or less spiky plant determines the effect of cannabis, is little less than fanciful.

Paraphrasing the cannabis researcher Ethan Russo, one of the greatest connoisseurs of the cannabis world (1):

“There are strains of Cannabis with distinct biochemical compositions, but the commonly applied distinction between sativa and indica is completely erroneous and an exercise in futility. At present, it is by no means possible to determine the biochemical content of a cannabis plant based on its height, branching or leaf morphology. The degree of hybridization is so extensive that only a biochemical analysis can reveal with certainty what is actually contained in the plant.”

It is easy to find experts who openly question this: Does indica and sativa really mean anything? Perhaps in the old days it was a terminology that was part of the underground lexicon and made sense. But nowadays, the variety of cannabis is such that there are multiple combinations of phenotypes (phenotypes are the physical characteristics expressed by the plant, including its color, shape, cannabinoid and terpenoid content).

It should be noted that there is no dispute that each cannabis variety may have characteristic “indica” or “sativa” effects. What is in question is how to predict this outcome as a function of a given phenotype.

Classification according to chemotype: a solution?

The alternative to the “indica” and “sativa” labels proposed by scientists is a classification based on the chemotype of marijuana. That is, to perform an analysis of cannabinoids and terpenes of each variety, and for the consumer to have at his disposal all the precise list of phytochemicals present in a strain. Obviously, this is only proposed by scientists, because nothing would be more confusing to a customer than receiving a list of indecipherable chemical names. However, we always speak in the context of marijuana for recreational use. Knowing the chemotype is certainly very interesting in the context of medical cannabis.

Cannabis has multiple chemotypes that are distinguished by their chemical composition, such as the predominance of THC, CBD or a combination of both. In addition, strains have been selectively bred with high levels of THCV, cannabidivarin, cannabichromene and even some that produce exclusively cannabigerol. There are also strains that do not produce cannabinoids at all. But if we add terpenes to the equation, the diversity multiplies.

However, even knowing the chemotype would not be a perfect solution, because the studies on the entourage effect of cannabis are in their infancy. There are components, such as terpenes, which in small doses can produce effects in the organism (in addition to their possible interaction with other cannabinoids) or modify the aromatic nuances of the flowers. These compounds are not well studied, so most of their effects and interactions are unknown. Therefore, a list of the five or six major terpenes in a strain is also not 100% enlightening about the effects of that cannabis, or even its aromas.

The solution to this dichotomy proposed by Ethan Russo, a leading cannabis researcher, is clear: stop using the terms “indica” and “sativa”! (1).

Is it possible to predict the effect of cannabis on a person?

As if the biology of the plant itself were not intricate and complex enough, finally our endocannabinoid system comes into play. It has been scientifically proven that everyone reacts differently to the same doses of cannabinoids.

In addition, there are factors that can modify the personal experience with cannabis, such as the predisposition to relaxation, the fact that an aroma can evoke different sensations in each person, or the environment in which the cannabis is consumed. This sociological perspective on the effects of cannabis had already been taken up by Howard Becker in his book on cannabis in the last century (1953).

In short, for some, it would be ideal and very comfortable to be able to walk into a marijuana dispensary and ask for “something to boost my morale”, or “a relaxing strain for this weekend”, but the reality paints a much richer and more complex picture. In the end, personal experience and preferences are a key and determining factor in the sensations we experience.

Our recommendation is that, if you are looking for a particular effect in a strain, you should take into account the information provided by the cannabis store, but also your own sensations, the environment and personal predisposition. And ultimately, dare to experiment!

  1. Piomelli D, Russo EB. The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2016 Jan 1;1(1):44-46. doi: 10.1089/can.2015.29003.ebr. PMID: 28861479; PMCID: PMC5576603.
  2. Watts, G., Science commentary: Cannabis confusions. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 2006. 332(7534): p. 175.

Is it more expensive indica or sativa?

According to the experience in dispensaries in the United States, where marijuana is legal in many states, cannabis with a sativa effect (mental or stimulating) is usually more expensive than the varieties considered indica (relaxing). This may be due to the fact that it is difficult to achieve this effect in cannabis, since the most abundant terpene in practically all cannabis varieties is myrcene, which has an eminently relaxing effect.

Andrea Rezes Esmeraldino
Cannabis researcher and trainer : Expert in CBD products of Cannactiva. With extensive experience in the cannabis world, Andrea is an expert in Cannactiva's CBD products. He deals every day [...]

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