Indica vs Sativa: Understanding the Spectrum

indica cannabis plant

Although the differences between the various cannabis strains are wildly debated, consumers still identify with the traditional categories we know as indica and sativa as well as the entire range of effects on the spectrum between them. But what do we really know about the differences between indica and sativa varieties of cannabis? How will things change as science starts to unveil the truth in cannabinoids, terpenes, and all the other compounds found in the plant?

The first step to understanding the effects of cannabis and learning how to get the most out of particular strains is to realize that not all cannabis is created equal. Many factors can contribute to the overall effects of cannabis.

Weed is the New Wine

Just as a wine connoisseur looks for particular characteristics or qualities in various types of wine, a cannabis connoisseur also looks for certain qualities in marijuana. In wine, one might look for a particular bouquet or aroma, depth and complexity in the flavor, and most certainly, the season or region from which the wine was produced. Wines are also categorized into distinctive groups.

  • Red Wines include fruity, dry wines made from cherries, strawberries, blackberries, or raspberries. These wines may be a pinot noir, a cabernet sauvignon, or Malbec. Reds may be more herbal, stronger, rich and full-bodied in flavor. Aromas and flavors may include black pepper, leather, or an earthy, deep forest scent.
  • White wines are typically lighter, sweeter, and airy. These wines may have tropical or citrus notes from lemon, grapefruit, or pineapple. A kiss of honey provides a sweeter pallet for Moscato and Rieslings, while florals, herbs, and grass contribute to the dry whites such as a Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc.
  • Blends like ross, sparkling, and dessert wines combine the characteristics from reds and whites to make appealing combinations of characteristics.

We can look at the different variations in cannabis strains in much the same way. Except with wine, there is only one overriding, consistent effect: intoxication. With cannabis, there are several factors that produce different effects for the user. Physical differences in the bud, cannabinoid and terpene expression, and even human biology all play into how the effects of the strain are expressed within a particular individual.

Let's review what we do know about the differences and why science and research are going to be so critical as prohibition comes to an end and people start to understand the health and wellness benefits provided by the once-infamous herb.

The Physical Differences

One of the most common ways to distinguish between the two varieties of plants is by evaluating their physical structure. While the features of a growing plant may not be important to the consumer, those growing their own cannabis and commercial cultivators may need to adjust their operations based on how a plant grows.

Typically, the physical differences and characteristics in cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are defined as follows:

  • Cannabis Sativa – These plants typically grow very tall and lanky, sometimes reaching as tall as 7 feet or more. The leaves are long and narrow, and usually lighter in color with shades of lime green. These plants generally have a longer flowering cycle; thus, cannabis sativa is thought to be best suited for tropical, warm climates where the plants will have plenty of time to mature in a longer growing season, needing between 12 to 14 weeks to be harvest ready.
  • Cannabis Indica – A cannabis indica variety is generally shorter and bushier in nature than its Sativa sister, so indoor growers with limited space are often drawn to this variety. These plants are darker in color with broad leaves. With a shorter flowering cycle, growers living in colder climates appreciate indica strains to fit their short growing seasons. Indica strains produce large yields in as little as 8 to 9 weeks.

Wildly Debated Sativa/Indica Designation

Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, and Senior Medical Advisor at GW Pharmaceuticals, believes the distinction is utter nonsense and even dangerous. In fact, he stated in an interview published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research in 2016, "One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology."

The Various Effects of Indica vs Sativa

As mentioned previously, the effects of cannabis can be easily defined on a sliding scale or spectrum.

Indica vs sativa graphic
Graphic by Kristina Etter

Landrace Strains ? The Far Ends of the Spectrum

On either end of this spectrum are the landrace strains, or original, indigenous strains. Often named after the region of the world from which they originated, strains like Afghani, Durban Poison, Pakistani, or Hawaiian have provided the basic genetics for all the other strains we know today. Through selective breeding of strains, which evolved particular characteristics based on their typical environmental conditions, master growers are able to produce an infinite number of hybrids.

Indica Strains

On this end of the spectrum, strains are typically heavy, producing deeply-sedating body effects, which relaxe extremities. calms the nerves, and quiets the mind. Many times, cannabis advisors or budtenders will refer to indica strains as "In-Da-Couch" strains because their deeply-relaxing effects will often leave the consumer with little motivation to get off the sofa.

The well-known effect of "getting stoned" is generally attributed to the indica variety. In general, time seems slower, the body may feel warm and relaxed, and the eyes become very heavy. Additionally, reaction time may be reduced, along with motivation and focus. Indica strains are powerful pain and inflammation relievers.

Indica strains are generally more sedative than their sativa counterparts providing a mind-numbing calmness which helps consumers fight even the strongest cases of insomnia and drift into a dreamless sleep for longer, pain-free sleep. Meanwhile, indica strains are also well-known for their ability to increase appetite and induce a severe case of the munchies, which can be extremely beneficial for those suffering from eating disorders or wasting syndrome caused by diseases like cancer and HIV.

Common Indica landrace strains include strains from Afghanistan and Pakistan, like Hindu Kush, Afghani, Lashkar Gah, and Mazar.

Sativa Strains

On the extreme opposite end of this spectrum are sativa strains, which are best known for their energizing, creative, cerebral effects. Sativa strains enhance the senses, heighten awareness, and create an uplifting euphoria for most consumers. Some people try to remember the difference by calling these strains, "Sunny Sativas" as they are most generally recommended for daytime use.

Sativas contribute to the effects of "being high" by providing an increased heart rate and mental clarity or alertness. With enhanced senses, colors and lights may seem brighter, sounds are clearer, and foods taste better. These strains may uplift the spirits, increase creative energy, and provide a euphoria leading the consumer to a severe case of the giggles.

Providing a more cerebral experience, sativa strains may often be sought after to provide a boost of energy, address problems focusing, and elevate mood to treat certain mental disorders. Sativa strains may help fight fatigue, as well as, be beneficial for PTSD patients. However, some anxiety sufferers may not appreciate the mental busyness which can be created by a strong sativa strain.

Common Sativa landrace strains include strains from south of the equator like Durban Poison, Acapulco Gold, and Panama Red.

Balancing Unwanted Side Effects

Although both indica and sativa strains present certain beneficial characteristics, patients experiencing pain may prefer the muscle relaxation and relief of indica strains but not want to feel sedated, while anxiety patients may want a medicine that won't cause their minds to race.

Thus, expert breeders use selective breeding to create unique variations of characteristics, cannabinoids, and terpenes, for the enhanced medical benefit or stronger recreational potency.

Hybrids: Blending the Best of Both Worlds

Today, in the legal cannabis market, consumers have a broad array of marijuana strains to choose from. Depending on the lineage, how the plant was grown, and the chemical expression of the plant these strains can provide varying degrees of effects.

types of cannabis indica vs sativa

In the spectrum, hybrid plants typically express characteristics which lean towards one side of the spectrum. If the strain produces more characteristics of a sativa nature, then we say the plant is "Sativa-Dominant." Likewise, if the strain expresses more of the sedative qualities of its indica parent then it is considered "Indica-Dominant." A balanced hybrid typically exerts a more level expression of these qualities.

Hybrids are particularly beneficial to patients who want to avoid certain side effects or who may want to highlight a particular cannabinoid or compound within the parent strains. For example, by breeding an indica Afghan strain with Haze sativa genetics, the characteristics of indica and sativa strains are combined, and growers produce Afghan Haze which is a balanced 50/50 hybrid. This strain is known to provide clear-headed cerebral effects to treat depression alongside powerful analgesic properties to treat pain without strong sedative effects or an overwhelming mental fog.

Along the spectrum, consumers may find an 80/20 sativa-dominant hybrid provides a nice, euphoric rush and mental clarity perfect for getting focused on the task at hand. While a pain patient may prefer a 70/30 indica-dominant hybrid to keep pain at bay without getting stuck to the couch. While someone suffering from insomnia may prefer the deeply sedating effects of a landrace indica to shut down any mental sleep disorders, quiet pain, and relax the body.

The Proof is in the Profile

While cannabinoid content plays a role in the spectrum of effects caused by various strains of marijuana, other compounds found in the plant, like terpenes, also are thought to contribute to the overall effects of the herb.

"Sedation in most common Cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic. In contrast, a high limonene content (common to citrus peels) will be uplifting on mood, while the presence of the relatively rare terpene in Cannabis, alpha-pinene, can effectively reduce or eliminate the short-term memory impairment classically induced by THC," Russo said.

In fact, Steep Hill Labs defines indica strains as having more than .5 percent myrcene. However, High Times countered this argument in 2015 when they tested several Cannabis Cup strains and found high levels of myrcene in all sativa varieties, while indica strains often had more linalool, limonene, or caryophyllene.

Additionally, in the retail market, there's little to a strain name. As with all retail businesses, marketing, and emotional appeal is king. Therefore, if a strain like "Agent Orange" isn't selling well, marketing personnel may suggest a name change to something with less of a negative connotation like "Agent 007" or "Magical Orange". Therefore, consumers may not be able to easily identify a strain's lineage or effects based on name alone.

Human Biology Plays a Part, Too

Each person is absolutely unique. Our genetics, our environment, our mental state, our diet, and our biochemistry make a difference in how cannabis is metabolized and the effect it ultimately produces. This is no different than with other pharmaceutical substances. For example, someone diagnosed with ADHD will react much differently to Adderall or Ritalin than someone who doesn't have the chemical imbalance. Comparatively, some consumers report experiencing the opposite of what is commonly reported with a particular cannabis strain, thus experiencing a creative, energetic rush from indica strains, with a sedative effect from sativa strains.

Whether the indica vs sativa designation will remain in the future is yet to be determined as qualified testing and research starts to uncover the mysteries of the compounds found in the cannabis plant and how they work with each other. Experts theorize the day may come where the consumer will purchase a product or strain based on actual test results showing the entire profile of cannabinoid and terpene expression rather than simply taking the word of the budtender.