Indica Vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference?

Indica vs. sativa

When researching or talking about medicinal Cannabis or recreational marijuana, chances are you have heard about indica and sativa strains. It is possible that you have also heard about hybrid strains, and the differences between indica, sativa and hybrid strains. Is there actually a difference between these types of plants?  When referring to CBD specifically, is this distinction important or does it only apply to recreational marijuana? Let’s explore these topics.

Cannabis plants consist of two main natural compounds. These are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the most commonly known compound found in Cannabis – this is the psychoactive compound responsible for making consumers feel ‘’high.’’ Both THC and CBD have a range of potential health benefits. However, unlike THC, CBD is non-intoxicating. As a medicinal product, CBD has recently become one of the most important byproducts of the Cannabis plant.

Indica Vs. Sativa: Historical differences

Every Cannabis strain is classified as either ‘’sativa,’’ an ‘’indica,’’ or as a ‘’hybrid’. Indica strains are believed to be physically relaxing, providing a sedative effect. The effects of Indica strains have also been described as ‘’full-body’’ and deeply relaxing. In comparison, sativa strains have been said to produce more of a “head high,” which has a more energizing effect. Sativa strains have been associated with reduced anxiety and increased focus and creativity. Hybrid strains are the mid point between the two and provide a balanced effect. However, there is no scientific basis for these claims. On a molecular level, these plants are all identical.

Sativa originated in warmer areas in the world that are closer to the equator, including Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, indica comes from the Middle East (including places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet). In 1785, French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck distinguished Cannabis plants based on their appearance. According to Lamarck, these different types of Cannabis had different leaflets, flowers, stalks and branching patterns. Along with other differences, Lamarck said that sativa-type Cannabis plants were taller, and had thinner leaves, while indica-type Cannabis plants were shorter, and had firmer stems and thicker leaves. Lamarck also claimed that indica-type Cannabis plants had a stronger smell, and had an intoxicating effect when smoked.

Challenging the Theories

Botanists challenged Lamarck’s theory. They argued that there is only one breed of Cannabis, which can adapt and take on different physical characteristics.  This would produce different effects on the brain and body. The appearance and effects of Cannabis can be very different, depending on the environment where it is grown. Factors that can affect how the plant will work include: humidity, temperature, sunlight, soil nutrients and altitude. This means that the same type of cannabis plant grown in two different locations could produce different body reactions, and look/taste/smell different from each other.

So, while indica plants might look different from sativa plants, the physical appearance does not affect the clinical effects of these plants at all.

However, while the indica-sativa classification is not as relevant for clinical effects as was once believed, it is still important for growers. Indica Cannabis plants have a shorter flowering season than sativa plants. This makes it easier to grow indica plants in cooler climates, while sativa plants are easier to grow in warmer climates. Furthermore, indica plant crops usually produce larger yields than sativa plants. Sativa plants generally grow much taller than indica plants, so it is difficult to grow these indoors.

Cannabis Classification

The effects of cannabis are instead attributed to the chemical ingredients found in the plant. These chemicals are called cannabinoids and terpenes. It is more useful to understand these chemical ingredients, than to simply choose between indica and sativa. Both chemicals are found in indica and sativa strains. Let’s consider the different effects of these chemical ingredients.



Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds found in cannabis. They interact with the endocannabinoid system in the human body, and these are responsible for the clinical effects of cannabis. While there are many different cannabinoids, THC and CBD are the two most common. THC produces psychoactive effects (or makes you feel ‘’high’’). THC also relieves pain and other symptoms, such as nausea, etc. On the other hand, CBD is a non-intoxicating compound, which aids in relieving anxiety, inflammation and pain, etc.

It is more useful to choose a cannabis strain based on its THC and CBD content. There are THC-dominant strains, CBD-dominant strains and balanced THC/CBD strains. Consider the below table for different strains, their CBD and THC content, and their common uses.


Other lesser-known cannabinoids include:

  • Cannabigerol (CBG): this cannabinoid is believed to help reduce anxiety, depression, and symptoms of PTSD and OCD.
  • Cannabinol (CBN): this cannabinoid helps with symptoms of neurological conditions such as epilepsy.
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA): this cannabinoid is similar to THC, except that it does not have any psychoactive effects. THCA could help to reduce symptoms of neurological disorders (such as ALS and Parkinson’s disease), as well as reduce inflammation from arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Cannabinoids in CBD Products

Most of the distinction between indica and sativa is important for recreational Cannabis. However, the strain used to produce CBD oil is less relevant. Just like with marijuana, CBD products can be derived from either indica or sativa plants, meaning that CBD comes from both sativa and indica plants. Neither indica or sativa necessarily have more or less CBD than the other, so there is no standard which is used predominantly for CBD oil.

Many CBD manufacturers extract CBD oil from industrial hemp, which contains relatively low levels of THC.

CBD oils that have all THC removed are called CBD isolate products. Making a distinction between indica and sativa is even less relevant in this case as the final product is simply a CBD extract. For full spectrum CBD oils, the remaining cannabinoids and combination of terpenes should be taken into consideration.


What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are found in many plants, and are responsible for the scent of plants. In Cannabis, terpenes are ‘’non-psychoactive organic compounds,’’ which affect the flavour and smell of each different strain. Along with providing different flavours and smells, terpenes also play an important role in the clinical effects of cannabis plants.

The perceived difference between cannabis plants is due to each plant’s terpene profile. Because there are various factors that affect the clinical effects of cannabis, some breeders and distributors are classifying cannabis strains using their terpene profiles instead. But there are hundreds of different terpenes, so this classification system is complicated.

Terpene Profiles

The effects produced by different terpenes is very complicated, and depends on their relative ratios, as well as the cannabinoids. Recent research has shown that terpenes work in synergy with cannabinoids, and they help with the absorption of cannabinoids.

Here are some of the most common terpenes in cannabis, and their associated effects:

  • Alpha-Bisabolol: this is not a major terpene in cannabis, and has a floral, mildly sweet smell.  This terpene is sometimes considered as a relaxant, and could have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects.
  • Alpha-Pinene: this is a common and abundant terpene in cannabis, and smells like pine needles. This terpene could improve alertness and memory retention, and could reduce pain and anxiety.
  • Alpha-Humulene: this is a common terpene in cannabis, and has a spicy, woody aroma. This terpene could have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and appetite suppressant effects.
  • Beta-Myrcene: this terpene has an earthy, musky smell, and could have anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, analgesic and sedative effects.
  • Beta-Caryophyllene: this terpene has a woody, peppery scent, and could have a number of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-chronic pain.
  • D-Limonene: this is a common and abundant terpene in cannabis, and has a fruity, citrusy smell. This terpene could help with pain, anxiety, depression and inflammation.
  • Eucalyptol: this terpene smells like tea tree oil and eucalyptus, and could help to fight bacteria and reduce inflammation
  • Guaiol: this is not a major terpene in cannabis, and smells like wood, pine and roses. This terpene could have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects.
  • Linalool: this terpene has a floral smell, and could have mood-boosting and relaxing effects
  • Ocimene: this terpene smells like mango, basil and parseley. This terpene could help ease congestion and fight against bacteria and viruses
  • Terpinolene: this terpene smells like apples, conifers and cumin. It could have antibacterial, antifungal and sedative effects.

Final Thoughts

There is no clinical difference between cannabis indica and cannabis sativa. Rather than the distinction between indica and sativa cannabis plants, the different clinical effects of cannabis plants are due to their different cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Along with terpenes and cannabinoids, other factors that can affect the clinical effects include dosage, the consumers biological makeup, tolerance, and method of consumption.



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