Sativa vs. Indica vs. Hybrid: The Differences And Does It Really Matter
As you browse the myriad of cannabis websites online or legal dispensaries throughout North America and Canada, you may find that there are three distinct kinds of cannabis that the different types of strains are usually grouped into. These are Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid.
While the effects of the strains within these umbrella groups can differ widely, there are some commonly accepted effects expected from each group.
The question most potential cannabis consumers ask is: “How do I choose the right strain?”, but the answer should not merely be based on a budtender’s opinion, however expert and experienced it may be. And usually, the answer is generally guided towards a Sativa or Indica dominant strain.
But where exactly do these distinctions come from? And how relevant are they today, as new research emerges?
The answer lies in creating a basic understanding of the different types of strains, and what the underlying factors are in differentiating these strains. By arming yourself with knowledge of cannabis strains and what causes the various reactions and effects, you can create a conscious experience- one where you (the user) is actively and mindfully choosing the strain, and focusing on what effects you choose to experience.
Let us start at the beginning by deciphering what the Indica, Sativa and Hybrid labels may indicate about a strain:
It is believed that Indica strains tend to create a sedative effect. These strains are excellent for those looking for a relaxing experience and a calming effect on the mind. Indicas, especially the stronger varieties, are best used before sleep and can be used as an effective relaxant for both body and mind.
Sativa strains are known to create an uplifting and stimulating experience. Sativa strains are favorited amongst creatives, artists and people that are looking to experience a cerebral high. The sativa strains are linked with cerebral stimulation and are effective stimulants used by many prior to physical activities and social gatherings. While every experience is different, users report clarity of mind and a sharpened sense of focus. On the downside, a strong sativa may exacerbate anxiety issues.
The hybrid strains are those that have a mix of both Indica and sativa. These strains can vary wildly in effects and experience. Hybrids will inherit different characteristics from their parent plants, so look at the genetic profile of the Hybrid when selecting your strain. Some Hybrids contain a higher percentage of Indica than Sativa and vice versa. Some Hybrid strains have been cultivated to inherit the best characteristics of each parent strain.
While the mainstream cannabis media may tout these three types as being the most important categories to be concerned with when deciding on your preferred cannabis, studies have shown that this may not be the case.
Researchers studying the profiles of the different strains have found that while it is certainly a neat and easy way of viewing cannabis, the strains may not display such consistent characteristics as once believed.
The chemical profile of the Indica, for example, may not be as consistently sedative as initially suspected. There is, however, a clarity between the visuals; the Sativa and Indica both exhibit definitive visual characteristics while they are growing.
Most people believe that Sativas are invigorating and Indicas are more relaxing. However, when we begin to take a closer look, we notice that this is a simplistic approach which fails to consider other essential factors.
In fact, you may be surprised to discover that even two plants from the same type can offer remarkably different effects. The plant’s chemical composition and the way it has been cultivated all play a significant role. Besides merely being an Indica or Sativa, the specific strain will play a vital role.
So, what determines a particular strain?
Well, the strain is made up, in part, by their terpene and phytocannabinoid content.
The differences in experience that Indica and Sativa offers have taken root in consumer consciousness. However, research is starting to unearth some evidence that could be contradicting to this particular belief. While it is true that Indicas and Sativas can provide distinctly different experiences, Sativa and Indica may not be as consistently sedative or uplifting as some believe.
One of the most distinctive differences between the two is the physical differences:
– Narrower leaves
– Longer flowering cycle
– Prefers warmer climates that offer longer warm months for its more extended flowering season
– Buds are airy and fluffy
– Broader leaves
– Shorter flowering cycles
– Can manage in colder climates with shorter warm seasons because of the shorter flowering season
– Buds are dense and chunky
Let’s Take a Look at Cannabinoids
Phytocannabinoids are chemical compounds in the cannabis plant and can be found within plants throughout the plant kingdom, not solely in cannabisl.
You have probably heard of CBD and THC. But what if I told you that there are over one hundred different cannabinoids in the plant’s chemical composition? While CBD and THC certainly produce the fundamental effects people often experience, the other cannabinoids play a significant role as well, some more than others. These cannabinoids all produce varying degrees of effects- similar to CBD.
Let’s take a closer look in detail.
Do researchers understand everything there is to know about cannabinoids? Certainly not.
However, they have been able to pinpoint some key characterizing cannabinoids:
This is the primary psychoactive phytocannabinoid that can be found in both Indica and Sativa, although both types will have varying degrees. THC can create the characterizing feeling of euphoria and heady ‘high’ that many users may experience. Over the past few years, breeders and cultivators have begun to manipulate genes to produce Sativa strains that carry extremely concentrated levels of THC.
This is the other famous cannabinoid. However, CBD has only more recently begun to be a more well-known cannabinoid as the research and case studies emerge on the wellness-promoting qualities that it is proving to have. Unlike THC, CBD does not have the chemical make-up to cause a psychoactive reaction. Many people have reported that CBD based products have been used to successfully relieve migraines, epilepsy and seizures, pain, nausea, and a host of other conditions.
CBN is often used to treat the symptoms of conditions connected to the neurology. Conditions such as seizures, muscle stiffness (uncontrollable), and epilepsy have all been treated successfully with this cannabinoid.
This phytocannabinoid shares some similarities with THC; however, it does not have any psychoactive properties. So far, researchers have identified the following potential effects:
- Reduces inflammation, especially resulting from autoimmune disorders
- Reduces symptoms of neurological disorders
This phytocannabinoid is quickly becoming well known alongside CBD because of its strong potential to ease anxiety, OCD behaviors, PTSD, and depression.
The Terpene Profile and the Entourage Effect
When you are browsing through a storefront cannabis dispensary or simply looking for a strain online, bear in mind that the dispensaries tend to stick with the more ‘modern-day’ meaning of Hybrid, Indica, and Sativa. In reality, there are many more factors that create different effects, including the terpene profile of each strain.
The terpene profile of a strain is what creates the distinctive aroma for each plant. However, studies have shown that terpenes do more than just create aromatic diversity; they bind with receptors within the brain and nervous system, producing various effects. Scientists are discovering that terpenes can enhance the cannabinoids’ effects, in what has come to be known as the “Entourage Effect.”
Dispensaries usually categorize strains under the labels Sativa, Indica, and Hybrids. This is a sufficient starting point for anyone looking to expand their understanding of the different strains. However, if you are looking to craft a deep comprehension of the strain you will be consuming, doing some additional research into the terpene profile will assist you in painting a detailed picture of how the particular cannabis strain will be interacting with your body and mind.
Both Indicas and Sativas will share a variety of terpenes. When you are looking to purchase cannabis products, you should check if the company offers third-party test results that showcase the full terpene profile of the cannabis they use.
Interestingly enough, we are beginning to see how terpenes could play a more significant role in the effects than previously believed. In fact, studies show that if you are seeking out a more sedating strain, you should look out for strains that offer high amounts of the monoterpene myrcene. On the other side of the spectrum, if you are seeking an uplifting experience, instead of locking your gaze on a Sativa, you could seek out a strain containing high amounts of limonene.
The following terpenes are the most common:
Preliminary studies show that this tea tree and chamomile scented terpene could be beneficial for reducing pain and inflammation as well as having microbial properties.
This spicy terpene has been shown to relieve depression, anxiety, and even help to heal ulcers.
Linalool is one of the most abundant terpenes in the plant kingdom. Studies how is that it can be a mood booster and help to relieve stress and tension
Myrcene is the most abundantly found terpene in the cannabis species. It has an earthy aroma, and researchers believe that it can help to relieve insomnia and promote relaxation.
Plants and herbs like mango, basil, and even parsley contain this terpene. One of the best attributes of this terpene is that it could assist in warding off viruses and eases congestion.
This pine-scented terpene could assist in boosting memory, reducing pain, and can also counterbalance the psychoactive effects of THC.
If you come across a strain that smells like apples or cumin, then you are probably looking at a bud with high levels of terpinolene. It can have a sedating effect, as well as carrying antibacterial properties.
This terpene is found in many of the most popular strains. It has a zesty, lemony smell that could offer a mood-boosting effect as well as relieve a stressed body and mind.
If you come across a strain that has this terpene, you will find that it could offer potent anti-inflammatory effects. It has a deep, woody aroma that is reminiscent of cloves.
This terpene creates the notable aromas of tea tree and eucalyptus. Researchers have found that this terpene could be antibacterial as well as anti-inflammatory.
Okay, so now we have covered two types of compounds that form the foundation for what makes up a particular strain, and its effects. While it is essential to understand that these factors are more important to the definition of one specific strain rather than the Indica or Sativa classification, it can still help to have an in-depth understanding of the Indicas and Sativas. Iit is these terpene and cannabinoid profiles that are more prevalent in either ‘Indicas’ or ‘Sativas’ that make it a more defining label.
Now that we have covered a few of the fundamental factors that will give a particular plant specific qualities let’s take a more in-depth look at Sativa and Indica.
So, how did we come to the Indica and Sativa terms, and how relevant are they in today’s cannabis cultivation and consumerism?
The Origins of the Indica and Sativa Names
Indica: The Indica term was initially used in the 18th century. “Cannabis Indica” was the term introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It was used to describe the psychoactive varieties found in India. The cannabis Indica was mainly harvested for hashish, seeds, and fiber.
Sativa: The Sativa term also originated in the 18th century. Carl Linnaeus named the species ‘sativa’. The term was used to describe hemp plants that were first discovered in western Eurasia and Europe where the plant was harvested for the fiber and seeds.
Today, the majority of the cannabis that is bought sold and consumed originates from the original Cannabis Indica.
Here’s how these terms are relevant to us today:
Sativa: This is the taller plant characterized by the narrow leaves and often sparser flower buds. The sativa is known for the energizing and cerebral effects. Interestingly enough, the original name for this species of Cannabis was cannabis Indica ssp. Indica.
Indica: This is a term that describes the denser plant with broad leaves and sedative experience. Technically speaking, this species is actually called the Cannabis Indica ssp. afghanica.
Hemp: Today, hemp is known as the industrial version of cannabis. It is cultivated for its strong fiber, seeds and for legal products containing CBD. Hemp is cultivated to contain minuscule amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient (less than 0.3%). The technical name for hemp is cannabis sativa.
While you, as a consumer, may now be aware of the official terminology of the plants. Most dispensaries will use the modern-day meaning of the terms, as the industry has come to understand them.
That being said, let’s take a more analysis of the Indica and sativa strains.
If you have been browsing through cannabis information sites for a while already, you would have seen countless claims that Indicas are more CBD heavy than Sativas, and Sativas are more THC dominant than Indicas. But, how do these claims hold up against research?
When we look at data results from cannabis lab tests, we see that this claim is another one that should be taken with a grain of salt. Again, we arrive at the conclusion that designating a strain ‘Indica’ or ‘sativa’ is not a steadfast designator of effects.
Why has consumer consciousness become so addicted to the notion that sativa is more energizing and Indicas are more relaxing? This is arguably because the public is seeking out the cannabinoid effects and are looking for more THC or CBD. This is a gross generalization, but it does hold truth.
So, let’s see how the CBD and THC content differs in Sativas and Indicas.
CBD and THC in Indica vs. Sativa
Thanks to independent testing labs such as Confidence Analytics, we are able to analyze the cannabinoid content of strains. Bear in mind that these test results are based on the aggregate, and each individual strain could produce more or less, or a more diverse cannabinoid profile depending on other cultivation factors.
THC Dominant strains: Sativa or Indicas?
According to state-certified testing facility Confidence Analytics, there is no dominant THC in either hybrid, Sativas, or Indicas. Take a look at the results below:
– Indica 17.3%
– Sativa 17.7 %
– Hybrid 18.2%
What does this mean?
If we go by the information provided by this lab, despite the popular opinion that Sativa is more THC dominant, Sativas (on average) are only holding a 0.4% increase in THC over Indicas. And hybrids (a mix of sativa and Indicas) have, on average, the highest percentage of THC.
CBD Dominant Strains: Sativas or Indicas?
Just as in the results from the THC testing, there is no significant heavyweight for CBD either:
– Indica 7.5%
– Sativa 7.1%
– Hybrid 7.8%
What does this mean?
Yes, you guessed it, Indica has a 0.4% increase in the CBD percentage, which means that it is not enough to make a widespread claim that Indica is synonymous with high CBD content. And, once again, we see that the hybrid strains take the crown for being the highest percentage in CBD.
All in all, as cannabis consumers, we need to remember that CBD and THC content can differ significantly throughout unique plant types and strains, no matter whether they are classified as Indica or sativa. The best thing to do is to examine the unique strains cannabinoid profile, and any reputable cannabis seller should provide this.
Moving Forward: How to Discern Specific Strains without the Indica or Sativa Label
When you go off in search of your cannabis, what do you look for? Chances are, you are in search of a specific mood or effects to generate through the plant. These effects are generated out of the chemical profile of the plant, the potency, and also the dose.
Most people (besides cultivators) rely on the Sativa vs. Indica nomenclature to explain what they are looking for in a plant when looking to purchase cannabis. So, how would you approach the search for a set of particular cannabis effects, if you want to abandon the Indica and Sativa label?
Well, you could research strain names and their cannabinoid and terpene profile. For example, if you are seeking a strain that carries a high amount of CBD, Granddaddy Purple is well-known for this. Similarly, if you are looking for cannabis that carries a significant amount of THC, you could research or ask the budtender which strain carries the amount of THC you are seeking.
To illustrate this point further, let’s create a situation. You ask a dispensary for an Indica strain because you believe that Indicas are high in CBD and Sativas make you more anxious. The dispensary could then offer you a White Fire OG strain, which is technically not a Sativa but still carries a high amount of THC- which is one of the cannabinoids responsible for instigating anxiousness. Do you see the problem with relying on an Indica or Sativa plant?
Another option is to use a potency guide. Many dispensaries, both online and storefront, are beginning to recognize that potency guides are critical for helping consumers get the right cannabis to suit their needs. These potency guides are a great way to assist you in finding a strain that can offer a great balance of CBD and THC.
If you are seeking out a sedating cannabis strain, perhaps to assist with insomnia, then you might believe that you should seek out an Indica. Again, this can go wrong since some Indicas have potent amounts of THC.
What’s more, you may even be inclined to seek out a CBD strain. However, research also states that in low doses, CBD can have a stimulating effect. So, do your research on a specific strain before you purchase it.
In the future, we will begin to see a more quantified biochemical profile for strains which have been compared with the results observed in users. This, coupled with the increasingly in-depth analysis of the cannabis plant and all her sub-strains and species, will assist cannabis consumers in deciding how to make responsible purchases specific to their desired outcome and/medical needs.
Jessica Rosslee is a former journalist that has dedicated her writing skills and passion for communication to the cannabis industry. Jessica has spent her life in the field of wellness and communication, committed to allowing people access to accurate health and wellness information.
As a freelance cannabis writer, Jessica is passionate about free-flowing education for the public and the destigmatization of cannabis.