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 subspecies of a plant that is called Cannabis sativa L. which belongs to the Cannabaceae plant family.
Indica and sativa have been subjects to many myths related to their origin. Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that all cannabis strains originated in Asia, specifically near the Himalayan region.
In modern times, cannabis sativa refers to plants that originated in India, while cannabis indica refers to plants of the Afghani heritage.
I have to add, right from the start, that distinguishing between indica and sativa has become very difficult, largely due to crossbreeding of the two.
An example of that is the fact that it’s not that easy to find a pure landrace strain. 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 close 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 highs and often have different terpene profiles.
The truth is that the differences between them are not so apparent.
For example, many authors insist that indica induces sleepiness and a body-targeted high.
However, recent literature says that this effect is produced mainly by a terpene called myrcene, and not by the indica subspecies itself. (1)
How to tell if a weed 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 than the indica. It’s 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. The reason why indica is short and bushy is because its anatomy is suitable for hot and dry conditions.
Indica vs sativa origins?
There are many theories regarding the origins of both Indica and Sativa, but the current consensus is that sativa originated in central Asia while indica originated in 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 today actually got their names (for example Purple Kush).
Interestingly enough, the differences in 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 strains.
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. This puts myths about cannabinoid levels between these two subspecies to rest.
However, these two species often produce different effects.
You’ve probably heard that sativa makes you energetic and that 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 a desired effects is not that simple.
The most palpable difference between indica and sativa is in their terpene profiles, 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 up to 1% of the whole flower volume.
Indica strains tend to have a lot more myrcene than sativa, which is why indica strains 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, and they all point to the fact that it’s neither indica nor sativa that are good for depression, but rather their active compounds—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 genetic 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. Therefore, anxiety can negatively influence the lives of many who suffer from it.
Cannabis is one of the most popular alternative treatments for anxiety, due to its ability to stimulate the endocannabinoid system. One example is the ability of CBD to interact with serotonin receptors, similarly 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 a question of THC vs 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.
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 the American Academy of Pain Medicine, there are currently more than 1 billion people around the world that suffer from chronic pain.
The trick to finding the best strain for pain is experimenting with a bunch of them. Just 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 life.
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 you consume.
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 at the very least. Thankfully it wears off with the high.
One of the most interesting things about cannabis is that a lot of its effects are subjective. For example, 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 has a completely unique 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.
- 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