In just about any dispensary, you’ll probably find the selections listed by type—say, flower, concentrates, edibles, topicals, and cartridges—and within each section by indica or sativa. But what does the indica vs. sativa distinction mean?
The two basic varieties of cannabis plants are indica and sativa. Within those categories, each strain has a unique spectrum of mind and body effects, producing a host of medicinal benefits. Typically, indica strains produce body effects and a sense of calm, relaxation. Sativa plants usually produce more energizing head effects and an uplifting experience.
It is true, however, that these days this distinction is less meaningful than it used to be. Medical marijuana can treat a broad range of symptoms depending on the patient and strain. Yet the main principles behind the sativa vs indica debate remain important to consumers and patients who need to identify the right strains.
In this article, we will:
- discuss the physical differences and origins of the indica and sativa categories
- describe in detail what the difference between indica and sativa is thought to be
- take an in-depth look at indica, sativa, or hybrid and other types of cannabis
- talk just a little about cannabinoids, terpenes, and effects
- and close by focusing on how to use the ideas behind “indica” and “sativa” to find your ideal strains.
Last Updated: July 21, 2020
Table of Contents
- Cannabis Strain Basics
- The Basic Indica vs Sativa Breakdown
- Shopping for Cannabis Strains
- Indica vs Sativa: Physical Differences
- The Evolution of Cannabis
- Does Indica vs Sativa Mean Anything Today?
- Indica In-Depth
- Sativa In-Depth
- Hybrids In-Depth
- Landrace and Heirloom Strains
- Medical Efficacy
- What Creates Sativa or Indica Effects?
- Choosing the Best Marijuana Strain for You
- Final Thoughts on Indica vs Sativa
Cannabis Strain Basics
With so many varieties of cannabis now available, it is critical that patients understand which indica and sativa strains of this natural medicine work for them and why. Certain cannabis strains are more appropriate for specific ailments and diseases and not others, so selecting optimal indican or sativa plants is central to getting the best possible care.
The flowering herb known as cannabis is actually a single species. There are three subspecies of the plant: indica, sativa, and ruderalis. The Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa subspecies of cannabis share many qualities, although they have distinct features.
A Breakdown of Indica vs Sativa
In general, users tend to find indica strains physically sedating, and sativas more invigorating. For this reason, indicas are usually better for relaxing at home in the evenings—anything that works well with body effects and a calm vibe, say a movie before bed. Sativa plants are usually more well-matched for creative projects, social gatherings, and physical activity—anything that might benefit from its uplifting cerebral effects.
These ideas about indicas and sativas and their effects are so mainstream that even budtenders at the best dispensaries often start there to try and nail down a patient’s preferences and needs. And who can blame them?
However, the chemical makeup of indicas and sativas in terms of their cannabinoids and terpenes does not suggest any clear reason why one subspecies should inherently uplift or sedate. Indica and sativa cannabis strains exhibit physical differences in the way they grow, but those differences are not chemical.
By now you may be thinking, what about hybrids? Hybrids are actually designed and bred to achieve effects that are somewhere in the middle, providing a balance of indica and sativa benefits.
On the modern cannabis market, hybrid cultivars have become at least as popular as straight indicas and sativas. This is a sign of several different things. First, that the market for cannabis is huge, and users want more options that breeders are working to produce.
Second, it may mean that growers are getting with the times and producing what people want more and more. Remember, technically speaking, all modern cultivars are hybrid strains. Still, the thing to remember about hybrids initially here is that someone usually created them on purpose, to meet a specific need, or to capture their favorite effects from two or more different strains.
In other words, these crossbreeds are the intentional blends of indicas and sativas, engineered, basically, for their highly specialized aromas, effects, and flavors.
As a practical matter when shopping, the labels indica, sativa, or hybrid give you somewhere to start. However, particularly as we begin to see just how differently various indica and sativas can treat a range of ailments from patient to patient, it’s easier to see that these labels offer more taxonomic convenience than anything else.
For example, have you ever gotten ready to relax for the evening with a great indica strain, only to discover that your soothing indica is, in fact, filling you with energy and focus? The opposite is no better; we’ve all tried a sativa or sativa-dominant strain that is supposed to be great for daytime use and ended up asleep or at least couch-locked with chips in hand.
The ideal indica or “knock out” strain for you might keep your friend up all night. And your spouse’s go-to for an evening of socializing might be just what you need to treat pain and veg out. The fact is, you can’t always predict how your body will react to a strain, and you might experience what you consider to be both indica- or sativa-like effects from any given cultivar.
When you’ve been browsing through cannabis strains in a dispensary, you’ve almost certainly seen your offerings broken down by indica, sativa, and hybrid. This may not be 100 percent accurate, but many patients and cannabis fans have used these familiar categories as a way to navigate the huge number of cannabis strains that are out there and predict which effects they might get from each one.
In other words, indica vs sativa as a concept has become a point of reference that is now so useful that cannabis shoppers can’t do without it.
As you do your research, you might continue to find the same phrases describing indicas: couch-lock, full-bodied, relaxing, sedating, and stoney, for example. The same is true for sativas, which people often describe as follows: cerebral, energizing, heady, and uplifting.
Does this mean that indica and sativas always do those things? No. But it does mean that you can describe “indica-like” or “sativa-like” effects as a kind of short-hand, as long as you understand what you’re really saying.
Although the jury is out on whether indica and sativa differ in their physiological effects, the two plants do look physically different. These differences (and unique geographical origins) are where the names sativa and indica come from, and botanists and growers use these physical differences to identify the different strains.
The difference between indica and sativa leaves
Indicas are broad and chunky with a deeper color, while sativa leaves are slender and pointier with a lighter tone. Indica plants themselves are shorter with a woody stalk, while sativa plants grow taller on a fibrous stalk.
Other physical differences between the leaves of indica and sativas include their smell—although again, this has much more to do with terpenes, as we’ll talk about below. Still, sativas tend to have a lighter, plant-y, grassy smell, while indicas usually smell a little stronger, sour, dank, or sweet.
Indica plants tend to grow more quickly than sativas, which take three to four months to propagate rather than the typical six to eight weeks of an indica plant. The various physical differences between cannabis strains or subspecies could be down to geographic isolation and adaptation, or to human breeding activities—or both.
The Evolution of Indica and Sativa Strains
Tens of thousands of years ago, as ice sheets receded all over the globe, cannabis plants moved into two regions: south-east Asia and Europe. Just like with any other plant, this geographical separation caused differences in ideal growing conditions and appearance over time. This led taxonomists to classify C. indica in south-east Asia and C. sativa in Europe.
As humans migrated around the world, they brought both indica and sativa seeds with them. Human selection in breeding across generations fueled genetic changes to the cannabis population. This means that today, almost every cannabis plant and strain available is a product of selective breeding, and technically a genetic combination or hybrid of indica and sativa plants.
In terms of the geographic origin and history of cannabis strains, sativa plants evolved in warmer climates as indica sseeds evolved in somewhat cooler regions.
Originally, indica developed with hash culture between the 30° and 50° latitudes in Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan, Morocco, Nepal, and Turkey. Sativas originated closer to the equator between the 0° and 30° latitudes in countries like Columbia, Mexico, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Although indicas tend to dominate the modern dispensary, Cannabis sativa was discovered by Westerners first. Originally, Cannabis indica was imagined to be the only species of cannabis. However, Westerners “discovered” the indica variety by the 18th century and named it after India, where they located it—northern India’s Kush Mountains.
Cannabis indica is native to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and, of course, India. Evolved for the dry, harsh climate of the Hindu Kush mountains, the plants have adapted to a changeable climate with a shorter growing time and more buds per plant. Their stockier, shorter greenery and fatter leaves also protect the plants.
Indicas sometimes have higher CBD to THC ratios than sativas. This may be one reason behind indica’s reputation for intense relaxation. (Don’t worry; there is plenty of cannabis out there with high THC content and indica effects.)
Most people prefer indica effects at night since they can be deeply relaxing. So, is indica an upper or a downer, really?
Indica strains typically produce that body high that melts you into the couch. Sativas are more likely to give you that cerebral effect that has you thinking, talking, creating. Hybrid strains can be all over the map, depending on which species is dominant, both upper and downer, because of the different effects of the Indica vs. Sativa highs.
Medical benefits of indica strains can include:
- Appetite stimulation
- Decrease inflammation
- Muscle relaxer, reduce spasms
- Reduce stress, anxiety
- Decrease nausea
- Relieve pain
- Treat insomnia
If it’s all about effects, though, how does indica make you feel? Indicas offer a body high that feels physically sedating. They are just right for bedtime, or Netflix and chill—if it’s really just you chilling, that is.
What is an Indica body high like?
A body high is an uninhibited, weightless feeling with bits of euphoria coming and going. With the body high comes time stretch, an altered perception of time, and other sensory changes to how you perceive space and color.
Physical signs of “being high” might include bloodshot eyes or a rapid heart rate, but that’s not the same as that deep, stoney, body high feeling.
Why the difference? What does indica do to the brain? Indica medical marijuana increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, helps manage the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. It is therefore linked to appetite and pain.
And what smells stronger, sativa or indica? Overall, indicas tend to have stronger smells, whether they be sour, dank, or sweet. Sativas have lighter, more herbal, grassier smells in general.
Classic indica strains include:
- Salmon River OG
- Pre98 Bubba Kush
- Blue Cheese
Here are three popular indica strains that we have reviewed in-depth:
Are there pure indica strains, and if there are, what strains are pure indica? As discussed above, most strains we see today, even when they are labeled “indica” or “sativa”, are really hybrid cultivars that tend to be indica dominant or sativa dominant strains. Still, there are a number of strains that tend to be dominated by indica effects. For example:
- Forbidden Fruit
- Mendo Breath
- Purple Punch
- Bubba Kush
And if you really want pure indica strains, you mean landrace varieties which we get to below. But for now:
- Hindu Kush
What are the strongest indica strains available? This always varies from place to place and even grower to grower. No one strain monopolizes the THC market.
That said, different strains do seem to have better THC concentrations over time—although this may be in part because they are popular, and more people grow them with that goal. Here are some of the strongest indica strains you can grow right now:
- Critical Kush
- Grape Ape
- Kosher Kush
- Northern Wreck
- Death Bubba
- Master Kush
Evolved for dryer, hotter, climates with longer, sunnier days, the plants have adapted for a reliable growing climate with a longer time to maturation than their indica cousins. They can grow taller than 12 feet as they reach for the sun, and the plants themselves are slender with thinner, lighter-colored leaves.
Sativas sometimes have lower CBD to THC ratios than indica strains. In fact, sativas sometimes have very high THC levels. This may be one reason behind sativa’s reputation for an intense “mind high,” or an anxiety-reducing, energizing, effect.
Many users of sativa-dominant strains feel creative, productive, and social, not subdued, so these strains are better suited for daytime use. These are the strains to try if you want to avoid “couch-locking,” which are usually tied to indica strains, and you have a need for daytime medicating. For these reasons, they are often popular with medical marijuana patients.
Medical benefits of sativa strains may include:
- Increase serotonin levels and elevate mood
- Stimulate focus and creativity
- Decrease chronic pain
- Stimulate energy
- Treat nausea
- Ease anxiety, stress, and depression
- Treat ADHD
- Fight fatigue
So, how do sativas make you feel? Sativas offer uplifting, invigorating head effects that work best with social gatherings, physical activity, and creative projects.
Three classic sativa strains are:
Most popular sativa strains are:
- Green Crack
- Jack Herer
- Maui Wowie
- Sour Tangie
- Island Sweet Skunk
What strains are pure sativa? Technically this is a question about landrace strains, which we discuss below, but:
- Acapulco Gold
- Durban Poison
- Panama Red
Best Sativa Strains On Earth Right Now
- Moby Dick
- Ghost Train Haze
Any hybrid in nature is simply the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or subspecies. Hybrid cannabis strains are just the offspring of both indica and sativa ancestors.
Cannabis growers are always creating new specific strains from unique parent plant combinations. The beauty of these hybrids is that they are, basically, designed to target particular problems or to produce specific effects.
Humans are typically the origin of hybrids, which tend to grow in greenhouses or on farms. Most hybrids come from sativa and indica strains, but there is considerable variation in how growers breed cannabis. For this reason, the look of a hybrid strain depends entirely on its genetics and may vary widely.
Again, because there is so much variation in the world of hybrids, they may treat any range of symptoms or produce a host of effects. They may also skew to daytime or nighttime use. For this reason, hybrids are often classified as balanced, indica-dominant, or sativa-dominant strains. Any hybrid might favor one parent, but hybrids typically achieve what their breeders intend: the best of both strains.
Most hybrids produce a more balanced “package” of effects. This takes out the more extreme sedating and energizing lows and highs of its indica and sativa parents for a more even-keel experience.
Hybrids for Patients
Hybrids are the breeder’s best-educated guess of how to capture many or most of the beneficial medicinal qualities of both of the parent strains. Cultivators can “cross” cannabis strains with particular diseases such as epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and multiple sclerosis in mind in order to create the most optimal new strain.
Although any two strains may technically be bred to make a hybrid, most frequently we see indica/sativa mixes. These are common because they allow daytime users to stay productive and alert yet “mellow.” However, especially in the quest to produce stronger medicine, breeders do sometimes mix sativas with other sativas or indicas with other indicas.
Hybrid strains that offer more indica effects to users are sometimes called “indica-dominant” or “indica-dom,” while those that produce more sativa effects are sometimes referred to as “sativa-dominant” or “sativa-dom.”
Sometimes, growers or dispensaries even label strains with an indica/sativa ratio—60/40 indica/sativa, for example. Other producers prefer to imply something similar about a strain with a percentage, for example, “60 percent indica” for that same strain above.
Many hybrid strains represent compromise solutions for patients who need to battle inflammation, nausea, and pain during the day without losing all track of time or their work. Those users who medicate during the morning or middle of the day often choose a strong sativa-dominant hybrid. Then, for more complete pain relief in the evening, they can move on to an indica-dominant strain.
Hybrid strains are more likely to allow medical marijuana patients to keep the indica body high without getting couch-locked. That’s because they will be feeling some uplifting effects from the sativa head high without it feeling too stimulating, thanks to that indica side leaning in.
Medical benefits of hybrid strains may include:
- Elevate mood
- Fight fatigue
- Reduce stress, depression, anxiety
- Aid with insomnia
- Stimulate appetite
- Treat nausea
- Reduce chronic pain
Classic hybrid strains include:
- Pineapple Express
- Girl Scout Cookies
- Space Queen
Three of the most popular hybrid strains include:
- Bruce Banner
- Blue Dream
- Wedding Cake
And a few of the most powerful hybrid strains available today are:
- God’s Hammer
- Strawberry Banana
- Memory Loss
- WiFi OG
Landrace and Heirloom Strains
Landrace strains are the OGs of cannabis species. They are the few strains that evolved within their native environments naturally and were not bred. In fact, thanks to eons of undisturbed natural breeding in place, landrace strains are really the only varieties that are not hybrids, and are typical examples of 100 percent pure indica or sativas.
Heirloom strains are landrace varieties that have been transported away from their native environment and grown elsewhere.
Landrace seeds or plants grown professionally in the United States, for example, are heirloom strains. The difference is that even these pure sativa or indica strains change outside their natural climate and lose some of their unique traits.
Landrace sativas originate in Anatolia, Asia, Latin America, and Northern Africa. These strains need climates with intense sun and long summers for their longer growth cycle.
Landrace indicas originate in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They flower more quickly and generally need less light—although again, they will not reach optimal growth in conditions too different from their native environment.
Technically, ruderalis is also a kind of landrace strain. However, as you will learn below, ruderalis is not used very much outside the regions where it grows.
Popular landrace strains include:
- Durban Poison, sativa (South Africa)
- Malawi Gold, sativa (Southeastern Africa)
- Panama Red, sativa (Panama)
- Afghani, indica (Afghanistan)
- Hindu Kush, indica (India/Tibet)
Cannabis ruderalis, a third subspecies, also exists. However, because it typically doesn’t produce any potent effects, it isn’t widely used.
Ruderalis plants adapted to the coldest, most extreme environments that cannabis can survive in, such as the Himalayan regions of India, Eastern Europe, and Russia and Siberia. These short bushes rarely breach 12 inches, but they make the most of low-sunlight, cold environments with their rapid one month grow time.
Ruderalis typically has very little THC content. It may have more CBD, but experts think it does not have enough to produce effects.
Breeders may wish to use ruderalis plants to try to shorten the grow cycle of their other cannabis or hemp plants, but on its own, this subspecies is not used often.
What Creates Sativa or Indica Effects?
You already know that when you’re shopping for bud, you should follow your nose. That’s true thanks to terpenes, the chemical molecules in the plant that resemble cannabinoids such as THC and CBD in many ways. And while THC content and CBD percentage are important, it’s actually the presence and amount of specific terpenes that allow a strain to produce indica or sativa effects.
For example, myrcene is the terpene found most often in cannabis, and it helps patients with insomnia and anxiety. It is similar in its effects to how opiates or narcotics feel. Typically, more myrcene in a strain signals indica effects—and this would be true whether or not it was a lower or higher THC version of the strain.
On the other hand, limonene, in a strain may boost your energy levels and mood, along with lending it a familiar citrus-y smell.
This is an excellent example of the entourage effect, the way that terpenes and cannabinoids work synergistically together to deliver medical benefits. Terpenes and cannabinoids enhance and buffer each others’ effects.
If Sativa and Indica Aren’t Predictive of Effects, What Is?
How any one cannabis strain affects you depends on many different factors, including the product’s chemical compound profile of cannabinoids and terpenes; your own tolerance and biology; the amount of cannabis you consume; and the consumption method.
Hundreds of chemical compounds comprise the cannabis plant. These work together to generate a unique harmony of recreational and therapeutic effects, led principally by cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In fact, so far scientists have identified at least 144 unique cannabinoids.
THC and CBD affect the human body very differently, and although this is not related to the indica vs sativa issue, it matters greatly to your experience. Here is a closer look at these two main cannabinoids, and some of their important cousins.
THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) has psychoactive properties and produces the “high” feeling we get from cannabis products. It also makes us feel hungry and relieves symptoms such as nausea and pain. Higher THC content strains are best for treating insomnia and pain, and some people use them for emotional issues such as depression, although anxiety may be a side effect.
CBD (cannabidiol) is a compound that does not have psychoactive qualities and is non-intoxicating. It treats anxiety, inflammation, pain, and other complaints.
CBN (cannabinol) can treat side effects and symptoms of neurological conditions, including seizures, epilepsy, and serious, nerve-induced muscle stiffness.
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinol acid) is like a version of THC that does not produce psychoactive effects. It may reduce arthritis and autoimmune inflammation as well as symptoms of neurological conditions such as ALS and Parkinson’s disease.
CBG (cannabigerol) may reduce anxiety and depression along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Remember, you almost never have control over any of these except for THC and CBD—although you can control whether you have a full spectrum product. But since you do have some power over how much THC and CBD you get, keep these guidelines in mind.
THC-dominant strains produce more intense euphoric experiences. They are also more likely to benefit patients in need of “head effects” who want to treat anxiety or depression. However, if high levels of THC content tend to make you feel anxious or paranoid, try a more balanced strain or a CBD supplement.
CBD-dominant strains contain far more CBD than THC content and may produce far fewer (if any) psychoactive effects. These are best for patients who need symptom relief but must maintain a clear head, and people who are simply sensitive to THC content.
There are, of course, very balanced THC and CBD strains. These contain similar levels of both cannabinoids, providing both symptom relief and mild euphoria. These can be a great way to get your feet wet and learn what works for you.
Remember, especially today, either a sativa or indica strain could be higher or lower THC and CBD.
If you’ve ever enjoyed essential oils, aromatherapy, or even really gotten into the smells of your favorite foods, you already basically understand how terpenes work. Plants and fruits such as hops, lavender, oranges, pepper, and cannabis produce these critical aromatic compounds that characterize each species. Cannabis flowers secrete terpenes as they secrete cannabinoids, and this is what gives a strain its smell, whether it be fuel or skunk, or citrus or berries.
So, how do terpenes, individually and in various combinations, create the effects we know and love in our favorite cannabis strains? And will you find a pattern in strains you prefer based on smell?
Here are some of the more common terpenes:
Bisabolol. This terpene may reduce pain, inflammation, and irritation, and possess antimicrobial effects. It smells of tea tree oil and chamomile. Examples: AC/DC, Headband
Caryophyllene. This compound can treat depression, anxiety, and stomach trouble such as ulcers. It has a spicy, peppery aroma. Examples: GSC, Death Star, Chemdog
Eucalyptol. This anti-bacterial compound may reduce inflammation. It is also invigorating and refreshing, smelling of tea tree oil and eucalyptus. Examples: Super Silver Haze, Bubba Kush
Geraniol. This terpene possesses anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-spasmodic, and anti-viral qualities. Examples: Great White Shark, Island White Skunk
Guaiol. This antimicrobial powerhouse with anti-inflammatory properties treats constipation, arthritis, coughs, and other respiratory ailments. Examples: Jillybean, Pennywise
Humulene. Strains high in humulene may reduce inflammation, and tend to smell of cloves, hops, woodiness, or earth. Examples: Candyland, Original Glue
Limonene. This zesty smelling, citrus terpene may reduce stress and boost mood. Examples: Do-Si-Dos, Wedding Cake
Linalool. The floral scent of linalool, reminiscent of lavender, boosts mood and improves relaxation. Examples: LA Confidential, Lavender
Myrcene. The most frequently seen terpene in any strain, this is an anti-anxiety and insomnia-fighting compound with an herbal, earthy aroma. Examples: White Widow, Pure Kush
Ocimene. This terpene may have antibacterial and antiviral properties and can fight congestion. Its delightful, herbaceous fragrance of basil, parsley, and mango is its own reward. Examples: Space Queen, Golden Goat
Pinene. The piney fragrance of this terpene signals the power to reduce pain, boost memory, and ease nausea and coordination difficulties. Examples: Blue Dream, Grape Ape
Terpinolene. This terpene offers antibacterial, antifungal, and sedative qualities. Strains higher in terpinolene may smell of cumin, apples, and conifers. Examples: Jack Herer, Ghost Train Haze
Choosing the Best Marijuana Strain for You
Now that got more knowledge about what sativa vs indica really means, you have more of what you need to find your ideal flower. Here are some tips:
Ask about the effects and how things feel rather than ask for indicas or sativas. Budtenders can offer so much insight once they have a sense of what you’re goals are.
Look for cannabis products and companies that test each batch and strain for terpene profile, not just cannabinoid content. Some of the better companies will give you the top three terpenes in each product, for example, so you can better track which terpenes and cannabinoids in combination work to achieve the type of experience you need.
Consider your cannabis experience. Consider a low-THC strain if your tolerance is low, or once with a good balance of CBD. If you are just getting started, ask your budtender about “entry-level” strains, such as Jack Herer or Pineapple Express. These strains usually produce milder effects that are easier to tolerate.
When in doubt, ask a doctor or other healthcare provider about your individual benefits and potential risks.
Finally, consider your own experience. If you find that either sativa or indica dominant strains seem to come through for you more often than not, go with what you know.
Final Thoughts on Indica vs Sativa
Although Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa technically have different botanical properties, the distinctions between these subspecies are not what we tend to think.
We cannabis aficionados overall seem to believe that indica effects are more relaxing on the balance, with sativa effects being more energizing. However, there are so many factors that go into making the unique experience that surrounds a strain.
What are your thoughts on the indica vs sativa debate? Did we miss any of the important details?