In this post, we explore the essential differences between the two most popular subspecies of cannabis — indica and sativa.
What are indica and sativa?
Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are actually subspecies of a plant that is called Cannabis sativa L. which belongs to the Cannabaceae plant family.
They have been subject to many myths related to their origin, but it is now widely accepted that all cannabis strains originated in Asia, near the Himalayan region.
In modern times, cannabis sativa refers to plants originating from India, while cannabis indica refers to plants of Afghani heritage.
I have to add, right from the start, that distinguishing between these two subspecies of cannabis has become very difficult, due to crossbreeding that happened in the 20th and 21st century.
Nowadays, it is not that easy to find a pure landrace strain and we’re usually stuck with hybrid strains, with varying levels of indica and sativa genetics. That is why, when shopping for cannabis, you usually see a label with “indica-dominant” or “sativa-dominant” nomenclature.
Why are indica and sativa different?
Even though they are the closest of relatives, there are some important differences between cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.
Many modern theories argue that these two species look different, produce different types of high and often have different terpene profiles, which are aromatic molecules that are located inside the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers.
The truth is that the differences between them are not so apparent.
For example, many authors have insisted that indica induces sleepiness and a body-targeted high. However, the recent literature says that this effect is produced mainly by a terpene called myrcene, and not by the subspecies itself. (1)
How to tell if a plant is indica or sativa?
Sativa and indica are different in their appearance, as a result of evolving in different geographic areas.
Sativa usually grows up to 4 meters and is much less dense. It has an appearance that is best described as narrow and its leaves are on the lighter side of the green. Sativa species evolved this way in order to survive in high-humidity areas.
Indica is short, bushy and dense. It grows up to 2 meters and its leaves are dark green, especially when compared to sativa. The reason why indica is short and bushy is that this anatomy is suitable for hot and dry conditions it originated in.
Indica vs sativa origins?
There are actually many theories regarding the origins of both Indica and Sativa, but the current consensus is that sativa came from central-southern Asia and indica from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
Geographically speaking, sativa strains originated in the steppes of Asia (current Mongolia) and spread to southern Asia. We know about the origin of cannabis sativa through the ancient Chinese scriptures where their use of cannabis was very well documented.
Cannabis indica, on the other hand, originated in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which is how most of the strains actually got their names (for example Purple Kush).
The differences in the geographical origins of these two strains can also be seen in their growing cycles and chemical profiles.
Indica vs sativa THC and CBD?
There are no essential differences in THC and CBD levels between indica and sativa, and this was a common stoner myth up until recently.
Once you start exploring cannabis products, you will quickly realize that cultivators are able to grow high CBD or high THC strains of both indica and sativa genetics, which puts myths about cannabinoid levels between these two subspecies to rest.
Find the right strain for you
Whether you want to relieve anxiety, pain or depression, the right strain is out there. Use our online tool to narrow the search.
However, these two species often do produce different types of high.
You’ve probably heard that sativa makes you energetic while indica makes you lethargic and sedated. Even though this is the case in the majority of today’s strains, I have to add that getting desired effects is not that simple.
The most palpable difference between indica and sativa is in their terpene profile, which is a good indicator of the effects one cannabis strain might produce, especially when combined with cannabinoids.
Terpenes are essential oils responsible for the aroma of cannabis, and they are present in cannabis in varying amounts, usually totaling around 1% of the whole flower.
Indica strains tend to have a lot more myrcene than sativa strains, which is why they often produce body relaxation.
All of these subtle differences in their biochemical composition account for the difference in produced effects.
Is indica or sativa better for depression?
Depression is a mental health disorder that affects more than 300 million people worldwide. Cannabis was used as a treatment for depression for centuries, however, it has never received an appropriate medical consensus.
In recent years, several studies dealing with cannabis and depression have been published, all pointing to the fact that it’s neither indica nor sativa that are good for depression, but rather the THC and CBD.
It is now widely accepted that high-THC cannabis may exacerbate depression over time and that low THC (<5.5%) high CBD (>9.5%) cannabis is probably the best for reducing perceived symptoms of depression.
Does indica or sativa make you more sleepy?
Cannabis improves our sleep by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and helping us spend more time in the deep sleep stage.
Experiences of many cannabis users have shown that indica is better for sleep, due to its high myrcene content which produces the couch-lock effect. The best bet for inducing sleep is to stick with indica strains that are rich in both THC and CBD.
Some of the most recommended strains for insomnia are Grandaddy’s Purple, Northern Lights and Pink Kush.
Is indica or sativa better for anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental issues caused by genetics or external influences, characterized by feelings of mixed fear and anxiety. Anxiety symptoms often produce the “fight or flight” feeling in situations that are not life-threatening and hence negatively influence the lives of millions of sufferers around the world.
Cannabis is one of the most popular alternative treatments for anxiety, due to its ability to stimulate the endocannabinoid system which is implied in many cellular processes in the body. One such is the ability of CBD to interact with serotonin receptors, in a similar way to many other anxiolytics. (2)
When it comes to treating anxiety with cannabis, it’s not so much a question of indica or sativa, but rather of THC and CBD.
Studies have found that CBD is more likely to reduce anxiety and that high THC strains may induce anxiety in those prone to it.
I have to add that this is extremely subjective but if you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder and are keen on experimenting with cannabis, stick to indica strains with 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD.
Indica vs sativa for pain?
Opioid use is on the rise and the number of people suffering from pain is also increasing—according to American Academy of Pain Medicine, there are currently more than 1 billion people around the world that suffer from chronic pain. This is exactly why so many are looking into cannabis treatment as a way out.
The trick to finding the best strain for pain is experimenting, but keep in mind that indica and sativa may relieve different types of pain.
Generally speaking, hybrid strains that combine both indica and sativa genetics are the best starting point.
From there, you should be looking into strains with 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD and increase the amount of THC as needed.
Experiences of many users have shown that high THC strains taken in moderation produce excellent results for many different types of pain.
Indica vs Sativa flowering time?
Cannabis growers love indica strains, as they have a short flowering time. The reason for that is something we mentioned earlier:
Different geographical origin equals different exposure to sun, which is why sativa and indica have different growing cycles. They just had to adapt to their location.
To put this into perspective:
- Cannabis Sativa matures relatively late and flowers after 12-14 weeks.
- Cannabis Indica matures early and flowers after 8-9 weeks.
These differences fit together to form an idea that changed the cannabis industry—let’s combine indica and sativa and get the best of both worlds.
That is how hybrid strains came to be.
Indica vs Sativa side effects?
In my 12-year-long experience with cannabis, I have found that both indica and sativa produce similar side effects and that the only difference in their severity is in the levels of THC.
Common side effects of THC are motor skill impairment, dry mouth, red eyes and a temporary increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
It is a well-known fact that you can’t overdose on THC, but if you do take too much you’re likely to go into a paranoid episode, which is unpleasant but thankfully it wears off with the high.
One of the things that you will soon realize (if you haven’t already) is that a lot of cannabis’ effects are subjective: what one person experiences is not necessarily the same as the other.
The reason for this is simple:
Every single cannabis strain is different…and every batch of that strain also differs in its chemical profile.
That is why you’ll see people talking about how pure indica makes them euphoric or how their favorite sativa strain makes them super relaxed.
Since we’re into the power of the people, let’s now explore some popular sativa and indica strains that you can try out right now.
40 most popular Sativa and Indica strains
Pure indicas and sativas are rare. We call these the landrace strains.
The majority of flowers you can buy in dispensaries are actually hybrids. Hybrids are crossbreeds of two strains, usually one indica and one sativa.
They’ve been invented for two purposes:
- Hybrids produce bigger yield much faster;
- Hybrids combine the best effects of both strains.
When you choose a well-developed and appropriate hybrid you get perfectly tailored range of effects but with significantly reduced side effects.
Here are some top-rated sativa and indica strains to get you started.
|Popular Sativa strains||Popular Indica strains|
|Amnesia Haze||Grandaddy Purple|
|Sour Diesel||Ice Wreck|
|Laughing Buddha||Northern Lights|
|Strawberry Cough||Aurora Indica|
|Moby Dick||Blue Mystic|
|Lambs Bread||Pineapple Kush|
|Green Crack||Purple Kush|
|Willie Nelson||Critical Kush|
|Jack The Ripper||Strawberry Banana|
|Ghost Train Haze||Golden Lemons|
|Durban Poison||Critical Mass|
|Super Silver Haze||Bubba Kush|
|Cinderella 99||Death Star|
|Haze Berry||Bubble Kush|
|Royal Moby||O.G. Kush|
|Dance World||BubbleGum XL|
You can save this to your phone and just show it to your budtender the next time you’re visiting a dispensary. They’ll tell you which ones they have in stock and then you can just grab a couple and go from there.
Eventually, you will find your top indica and sativa strains that just feel good and bring you the most bang for the buck.
- Piomelli D, Russo EB; The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD; Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research; 2016; 1(1): 44–46
- Blessing EM, Steenkamp MM, Manzanares J, Marmar CR; Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders; Neurotherapeutics; October 2015; 12(4):825-836