Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Strains
Indica and sativa are the two main varieties of the cannabis plant, while a hybrid is a cultivar created from plants with both indica and sativa properties. Whether you’re in the dark about indica, sativa, and hybrid cannabis varieties, or you think you know all there is to know, you’ll find some value in our deep dive into cannabis strains.
Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid Strains: The Short, New-Age Story
When you shop in the dispensary, your Cannabis Advisor likely asks you if you’re looking for something uplifting, relaxing and sedating, or balancing. These strain categories - once scientific in nature - are used to help bucket these effects.
The key difference between indica and sativa is the way they make people feel when they consume cannabis products, whether edibles, dabs, tinctures, vapes, smoked flower, or something else.
Indica strains are described as being more capable of creating a “body high” that relaxes the muscles right along with the brain. Depending on the strain, indicas can promote a relaxed state, a deep sleep, sedation, or may simply induce calming.
Sativa strains are known for providing a more head-centered high without a similar effect on the body. Sativas are touted for helping cannabis consumers experience energy, clear-mindedness, and creativity. That’s why you’ll often hear of indica strains being recommended for nighttime use and sativa strains for during the day.
Hybrids, on the other hand, can go both ways depending on their unique makeup. They may lean more toward the energizing effects of sativa or the relaxing effects of indica, or deliver a little of both.
While it’s the strain category (i.e., sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid) that has been used to define the different types of highs in more recent cannabis history, there’s certainly more to the story. The effects of any particular cannabis strain have more to do with the unique cannabis compounds it features. That is to say, compounds like cannabinoids and terpenes that make up a strain play a far more important role in determining the effect of a strain than whether it is indica, sativa, or a hybrid.
Cannabinoids and Terpenes Explained
To truly explain the unique differences between cannabis varieties or decipher one strain’s potential effects over another, it is important to first unpack the science behind the scenes. Cannabinoids and terpenes can paint a more illustrative picture of a specific strain’s character traits and effects on a user than its simple classification as an indica or sativa.
While there are more than 80 different cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant – and even more cannabinoid byproducts that emerge as these naturally-occurring cannabinoids are heated or digested – there are two prominent cannabinoids that produce most of the therapeutic and psychoactive effects. These are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
THC is a psychoactive compound, which means it interacts with the endocannabinoid receptors in your brain and body to create that euphoric feeling. It’s these chemical interactions with the brain’s reward system that gives you the sensation of being what we describe as “high.”
Though many think the reason a certain strain of indica, sativa, or hybrid makes users feel one type of high or another is the varying amounts of THC it boasts, in reality, it’s the way THC, CBD, other cannabinoids, and terpenes interact with one another. In other words, each unique cannabis cultivar delivers a different effect because each has a different combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.
CBD, on the other hand, is a non-psychoactive compound and does not interact with your endocannabinoid receptors in the same way as THC does. CBD cannot make you high, but what it can do is alter the way THC affects you by altering the way it interacts with your receptors. For the most part, CBD can mellow the effects of THC. On its own, and in conjunction with terpenes, CBD is known to offer therapeutic effects such as anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-tumoral, and anticonvulsant, as well as neuro-protectant properties.
The fragrant scent and flavor compounds that provide all plants with their aroma and taste profiles are called terpenes. They are what makes a flower smell sweet, an orange smell citrusy, or certain saps spell like pine, and many have an effect on us when we breathe them in. For example, the good mood properties of smelling a gardenia, the calming properties of lavender, and the energizing fragrance of citrus can all be attributed to terpenes.
Terpenes have therapeutic properties as well, and when combined with cannabinoids, the terpenes found in a certain strain of cannabis can have unique and profound effects on the way you experience cannabis.
While researchers have identified upwards of 150 cannabis terpenes, there are six most abundantly and frequently found in cannabis, each with distinctive beneficial properties.
- Alpha-pinene naturally occurs in pine needles, among other plants, and smells like pine. This terpene is beneficial as an anti-inflammatory, a memory aid, a bronchodilator, and an antibacterial agent.
- Linalool is responsible for lavender’s scent and acts as an anticonvulsant, an analgesic, an anesthetic, and an anti-anxiety agent.
- Limonene creates that signature citrusy scent and is often used in acid reflux treatment. This terpene is also believed to relieve depression and anxiety.
- Myrcene naturally occurs in hops and mangoes and is responsible for much of the sedative effects of indica strains. It is often used as a sleep aid and muscle relaxer.
- Beta-caryophyllene is also found in black pepper and cloves. It is used as an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic. It also helps protect the lining of the digestive system.
- Nerolidol has a relaxing effect and occurs naturally in various herbs, as well as jasmine. Nerolidol has antioxidant, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial properties, as well as a relaxing effect.
Taking the information above, we can now dive into a deeper explanation of the three types of cannabis strains: sativa, indica, and a hybrid of the two.
Feeling like a terpenes expert? Take our terpene quiz and test your knowledge!
How Sativa and Indica Plants Grow
If these terms are a relatively new-age way to describe genetics, where did they come from?
The answer lies in plant science. When the cannabis plant was discovered, as you can imagine, there were vast variations in the appearance of strains. To denote the differences, and differentiate via name, horticulturists looked to the physical traits of the plants.
The most noticeable differences between sativas and indicas are in their physical appearance. In fact, sativa and indica cannabis plants are somewhat different from the beginning. Many people don’t realize the two types of plants look different, have different growth timing cycles, and thrive in different climates and environments.
It’s important to note that when describing environments and climates, we’re looking at cannabis plants that occur in nature. When growing cannabis plants for consumer use, these climates are created in indoor grows or even greenhouses by controlling variables like light, heat, humidity, and more.
Sativa plants, in their natural habitat, grow best in dry climates that are situated nearest to the equator, where there is little change throughout the year in day and night cycles. Thus, sativa plants grow most abundantly in nature in Central America, Africa, and Western and Southeast Asia. There, they can grow as high as 12 feet tall, though pure sativa strains can grow as high as 20 feet.
Indica plants, on the other hand, grow shorter and stockier than sativa plants. They also produce more flower at a faster rate than their lanky counterparts. Indica cannabis plants are native to Afghanistan, India, Turkey, and Pakistan, as they thrive best in harsh mountainous environments.
Hybrid plants are crosses of sativa and indica strains. These plants typically tend to take on the physical attributes and growth cycle of the most dominant parent strains, whether sativa or indica.
Cannabis Plant Composition and Effects
Though there is an enormous variety of hybrid cannabis strains, each with varying ratios of sativa and indica lineage, it is still helpful to learn about the unique properties of sativas and indicas.
Remember, though, each person’s body chemistry is different. What may be stimulating to one, may have the complete opposite effect for another. For example, many report buzzy, creative effects with Pomelo Diesel, but this writer feels incredibly drowsy when using the very same strain.
Sativa Effects and Benefits
Sativa plants and hybrids that are predominantly sativa strains often contain high amounts of THC, as well as terpenes a-pinene and limonene concentrations. For this reason, they tend to have more stimulating, energizing, and productive effects than indica strains. Popular sativa strains today include G6, Pomelo Diesel, and B52 Bomber.
The most commonly noted benefits of sativa cannabis strains are energy and focus related. This includes boosting creativity and productivity, as well as improving social skills and mood. Sativa strains are commonly used to combat the effects of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and attention issues. They are also popular for chronic and acute pain alleviation and are used to treat everything from PMS symptoms to fibromyalgia and migraine pain.
Indica Effects and Benefits
Indica plants, like sativa plants, often boast high levels of THC, though terpenes differ in that myrcene and linalool are abundant, both of which are relaxing and can be used as sedatives. Indica strains are often used at night for sleep or relaxation due to their drowsy effects. Popular indica strains include Mag Landrace, Berry Pop Tart, and G-Purps.
The primary benefits of indica-forward strains are typically the opposite of sativas. Indica strains can relax the body, the muscles, and the mind. Indicas are often recommended to treat insomnia, anxiety, and muscle tension. Since indica strains are often used to alleviate chronic and acute pain, they can be a great alternative for soothing pain relief.
Hybrid Effects and Benefits
Hybrid strains can vary in terms of THC and CBD levels and terpene composition. These strains are often crossed and cultivated to produce specific effects or characteristics, whether that’s trichome development, terpene concentration, or even THC and CBD levels. The parent plants used to create a hybrid can also provide insight into the effects of a hybrid strain. Cherries Jubilee, Gelato, and Funnelcake are popular hybrid strains. Hybrids, as you can probably guess, provide a vast number of combinations of sativa and indica benefits, depending on the strain.
Cannabis Classification FAQs
So, what can you take away from this background knowledge about indica, sativa, and hybrid strains? Browse the answers to these commonly asked questions - and always remember, these effects vary from person to person! An uplifting strain to one may provide the opposite effects for another.
Does Sativa or Indica Make You Sleepy?
Indica cannabis strains are commonly associated with sedative effects, and various strains have sleep-associated effects that range from relaxing to deep sleep-inducing. Indica-leaning hybrids can product similar effects, to varying degrees.
Does Sativa Make You Laugh?
Sativa strains are known to improve mood, enhance social skills, and make users laugh. They may be more conducive to making people laugh than indica strains because they provide energizing effects, making fits of laughter more likely. Still, any cannabis strain can leave you feeling giggly, happy, and uninhibited.
Does Sativa Make You Feel Energetic?
Sativa cannabis strains tend to have more energetic effects than indica strains and are known to supply energy, focus, creativity, and social adeptness. A sativa-prominent hybrid will also produce a more energetic high than those produced by indica and indica-rich hybrid strains.
What’s the Major Difference Between Indica and Sativa?
There is a definitive difference between pure or mostly pure indica and sativa cannabis strains. These differences occur in the length they take to grow flower, the way the plants look, and the way they make users feel. The scientific difference between indica and sativa effects is the physical appearance of the plant.
Explore Cannabis Strains at Zen Leaf
We’re still in the early stages of cannabis discovery. As the DEA examines the HSS's recommendation to reschedule cannabis allowing for extended cannabis research, we stand to learn a great deal more about how particular cannabis compounds impact the cannabis experience. This is just the beginning of what will someday be a canon of centuries of research, discoveries, and uses for cannabis and cannabis products.
What we've covered are the basics, but we hope to inspire new and seasoned cannabis users to embark on their own experimentation with cannabis varieties and the countless strains and hybrids there are to explore.
To continue learning, head over to our Cannabis Strain Guide where you can search by effect and flavor to discover which strain is the right one is right for you!
Digital Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.
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