Understanding Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid Cannabis Strains
For a new patient, stepping up to the counter at the dispensary for the first time can be quite an experience. The initial excitement at seeing the products up close soon gives way to the daunting task of actually selecting something that truly suits your needs.
That’s why we begin each new patient orientation by discussing the two primary types of marijuana, indica and sativa. They have different genetic characteristics because they originally came from different parts of the world. Both types have important medicinal properties, but there are important differences between their effects, which may determine which choice will work best for the needs of an individual patient.
Indica strains tend to provide a physical effect, which can be felt throughout the body. These strains are commonly used for reducing pain, relieving muscle tension, increasing relaxation, and helping patients rest. Indica strains are often recommended for nighttime use, because many patients find them helpful for promoting sleep.
Sativa strains tend to produce a more cerebral effect, which impacts mood and emotion. These strains are popular for increasing energy levels, improving focus, and combatting depression. Sativa strains are often recommended for daytime use because many patients find them helpful for providing symptom relief without interfering with daily activities.
Hybrid strains are varieties that contain similar levels of indica and sativa. These “best of both worlds” strains offer a balance between the benefits of both types.
Indica plants are shorter in height and sometimes display darker colors
Understanding these categories helps patients to better anticipate how they might respond to one product or another, but these rules aren’t set in stone either. Many patients find success treating common symptoms like pain, nausea and appetite loss with a variety of strains from across the indica/sativa spectrum. We encourage our patients to sample a range of products, and those who do so often discover preferred strains in more than one category.
Due to extensive cross-breeding, it’s rare for a strain to exhibit entirely pure sativa or indica attributes. Patients should view these categories as a spectrum, with each strain falling somewhere on the map in between these competing extremes. For this reason, not every product listed as a “sativa” on the dispensary menu will be equally energizing and alert in it effects, just as not every “indica” will produce a predominantly sedative effect. For example, a patient who finds a particular sativa strain overstimulating may be tempted to avoid this category entirely, when in fact some milder sativas may be able to treat their symptoms successfully.
Try as we might to categorize each strain we encounter, the reality is that cannabis genetics often have complicated and sometimes unknown histories. Even the most popular sativa strains typically contain some indica genes and vice versa. Moreover, individual plants will at times display different characteristics than others, just as two human children born to the same parents may look alike but exhibit different personalities.
Ultimately, an understanding of the difference between indicas, sativas, and hybrids often serves as a useful guide, but every patient is unique and each individual will be the final judge of what works best for their medical needs. That’s what makes medical cannabis such an interesting and rewarding journey for so many.
Understanding the difference between indica, sativa, and hybrid strains helps medical marijuana patients find the right product for their individual needs.
Sativa vs. Indica: What to Expect Across Cannabis Types and Strains
Things to consider
The two main types of cannabis, sativa and indica, are used for a number of medicinal and recreational purposes.
Sativas are known for their “head high,” an invigorating, energizing effect that can help reduce anxiety or stress and increase creativity and focus.
Indicas are typically associated with full-body effects, such as increasing deep relaxation and reducing insomnia.
Although research examining these effects is limited, it appears these plants have more in common than previously thought.
In other words, the category, or type, of cannabis may not be the greatest indicator of the effects you’ll experience.
Here’s how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, potential side effects, and more.
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 strains, or breeds.
Strains are distinguished by their individual cannabinoid and terpene content. These compounds are what determine the strain’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-psychoactive. 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 from 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 produced by specific strains.
According to Leafly, common terpenes include:
- Bisabolol. With notes of chamomile and tea tree oil, the terpene bisabolol is thought to reduce inflammation and irritation. It may also have microbial and pain-reducing effects.
- Caryophyllene. The peppery, spicy molecule may 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 reduce inflammation.
- Eucalyptol. With notes of eucalyptus and tea tree oil, this molecule is refreshing and invigorating. It may also reduce inflammation and fight bacteria.
- Origin:Cannabis sativa is found primarily in hot, dry climates with long sunny days. These include Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and western portions of Asia.
- Plant description: Sativa plants are tall and thin with finger-like leaves. They can grow taller than 12 feet, and they take longer to mature than some other types of cannabis.
- Typical CBD to THC ratio: Sativa often has lower doses of CBD and higher doses of THC.
- Commonly associated effects of use: Sativa often produces a “mind high,” or an energizing, anxiety-reducing effect. If you use sativa-dominant strains, you may feel productive and creative, not relaxed and lethargic.
- Daytime or nighttime use: Because of its stimulating impact, you can use sativa in the daytime.
- Popular strains: Three popular sativa strains are Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, and Durban Poison.
- Origin:Cannabis indica is native to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkey. The plants have adapted to the often harsh, dry, and turbulent climate of the Hindu Kush mountains.
- Plant description: Indica plants are short and stocky with bushy greenery and chunky leaves that grow wide and broad. They grow faster than sativa, and each plant produces more buds.
- Typical CBD to THC ratio: Indica strains often have higher levels of CBD and less THC.
- Commonly associated effects of use: Indica is sought after for its intensely relaxing effects. It may also reduce nausea and pain and increase appetite.
- Daytime or nighttime use: Because of its deep relaxation effects, indica is better consumed at night.
- Popular strains: Three popular indica strains are Hindu Kush, Afghan Kush, and Granddaddy Purple.
Each year, cannabis growers produce new and unique strains from different combinations of parent plants. These cannabis hybrids are often grown to target specific effects.
- Origin: Hybrids are typically grown on farms or greenhouses from a combination of sativa and indica strains.
- Plant description: The appearance of hybrid strains depends on the combination of the parent plants.
- Typical CBD to THC ratio: Many hybrid cannabis plants are grown in order to increase the THC percentage, but each type has a unique ratio of the two cannabinoids.
- Commonly associated effects of use: Farmers and producers select hybrids for their unique impacts. They can range from reducing anxiety and stress to easing symptoms of chemotherapy or radiation.
- Daytime or nighttime use: This depends on the predominant effects of the hybrid.
- Popular strains: Hybrids are typically classified as indica-dominant (or indica-dom), sativa-dominant (sativa-dom), or balanced. Popular hybrids include Pineapple Express, Trainwreck, and Blue Dream.
A third type of cannabis, Cannabis ruderalis, also exists. However, it isn’t widely used because it usually doesn’t produce any potent effects.
- Origin: Ruderalis plants adapt to extreme environments, such as Eastern Europe, Himalayan regions of India, Siberia, and Russia. These plants grow quickly, which is ideal for the cold, low-sunlight environments of these places.
- Plant description: These small, bushy plants rarely grow taller than 12 inches, but they grow rapidly. One can go from seed to harvest in little more than a month.
- Typical CBD to THC ratio: This strain typically has little THC and higher amounts of CBD, but it may not be enough to produce any effects.
- Commonly associated effects of use: Because of its low potency, ruderalis isn’t routinely used for medicinal or recreational purposes.
- Daytime or nighttime use: This cannabis plant produces very few effects, so it can be used at any time.
- Popular strains: On its own, ruderalis isn’t a popular cannabis option. However, cannabis farmers may breed ruderalis with other cannabis types, including sativa and indica. The plant’s rapid growth cycle is a positive attribute for producers, so they may want to combine more potent strains with ruderalis strains to create a more desirable product.
Potential side effects and risks
Although cannabis use is often associated with potential benefits, it can also produce unwanted side effects.
- dry mouth
- dry eyes
- increased heart rate
- decreased blood pressure
Most of these effects are associated with THC, not CBD or other cannabinoids. However, any cannabis product can produce side effects.
The method of use may increase your risk for side effects, too.
For example, smoking or vaping cannabis can irritate your lungs and airways. This may lead to coughing and respiratory problems.
Oral cannabis preparations, such as gummies or cookies, are less likely to affect your overall respiratory health.
However, the effects are felt more slowly and typically aren’t as strong.
Sativa and indica are the two main types of cannabis plants. The often-applied rule of thumb is that sativas are more invigorating and energizing, while indicas are more relaxing and calming — but this is an immense oversimplification. Here's how to find the right plant for your needs, strains to consider, and more.