Indica Vs. Sativa: What is the Difference?

There are over 2,000 and counting different strains of medical cannabis out there on the market today. As cultivators and manufacturers continue to creatively keep up with the demand of users, the list continues to grow. You may have heard of the main medical cannabis types—indica and sativa—but what exactly is the difference between the two? Read on to find out!

What Sativa and Indica Have in Common 

There are actually three broad categories of cannabis: sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Ruderalis is also called “hemp,” and is the subject of another article. Today we will be zeroing in on the two main strain types found in moderate to high-THC medical cannabis: sativa and indica. We will also be talking a little bit about “hybrid” strains of medical cannabis as well. 

Indica, sativa, and “hybrid” cannabis types are all nutritional and healing powerhouses. In fact, a typical cannabis plant of any variety can contain between 450 – 500 different types of phytonutrients. These may include flavonoids, fatty acids, heavy metal chelators like chlorophyll, and various kinds of antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals. The cannabis plant also contains many different kinds of terpenes too. As we will see a little later on, terpenes play a major role in the overall effect of both indica and sativa strains. 

Of course, what sets cannabis apart from other superfoods is the presence of a particular class of phytonutrients called cannabinoids. All cannabis types—indica, sativa, hybrid varieties, and hemp —contain cannabinoids in various forms. Cannabinoids are what allow the cannabis plant to be able to aid and support our own internal endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a subtle system within all mammals that helps the body maintain homeostasis overall…balance.

While all three broad categories of the cannabis plant have cannabidiol, i.e., CBD, as well as CBD variants, strains that are labeled as “indica” or “sativa” are also going to contain higher amounts of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, as well.

What is a Hybrid? 

Before we dive into the different characteristics and, most importantly, benefits to be derived from indica and sativa medical cannabis, it is helpful to know that most of the cannabis flowers/buds that you may see at your local dispensary today are actually considered “hybrid” strains. Most cannabis products, such as gummies and edibles, are also created using hybrid strains for the most part. 

A hybrid is created when a cannabis cultivar crosses two “parent” plants. This crossing can consist of one pure indica and one pure sativa, or it can be a pairing of hybrids. In addition, sometimes cultivars splice together three, four, or even several different strains to create a proprietary plant. Cannabis cultivars do this to create a unique cannabis plant product that will appeal to a particular consumer group, to provide more focused benefits for a particular condition, or to claim proprietary rights to the strain in the cannabis marketplace. 

No one really knows exactly how many hybrid strains there are right now, since new ones are being developed every week. Of the major hybrid strains that are the most common and well-known, there can easily be over 500 and probably closer to 1,000 different hybrid strains. Some are “indica-dominant” hybrids, such as Blue Dream, while others are “sativa-dominant,” such as Pineapple Express. Still others may be an equal crossing of the two.

What Does Science Say About the Difference Between Indica and Sativa? 

In popular culture and in the marketplace, it is common knowledge that “indica”-dominant strains produce very different effects than “sativa”-dominant strains. That is why it is ironic that, according to modern molecular testing, there really isn’t any difference between the two strains when you look at both of them under a microscope. Both strains can be labeled as cannabis sativa L. In fact, the modern system of cannabis classification was originally created in the 18th century, when cannabis was grown fairly freely and hemp itself was a major crop produced by North American farmers. French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark first proposed the system, based on the fact that indica cannabis plants tended to produce chubbier leaves than the long, lean, almost feathery leaves produced by sativa plants. Indica leaves also tended to grow in a different pattern than sativa. Lamark surmised that, since they looked different, they must produce different kinds of effects. 

Ultimately, this reasoning turned out to be false on the biochemical level. So, what does produce the difference between the two? It turns out that there are a lot of factors that can turn out plants which have an indica or sativa effect on a person.

These factors may include: 

soil quality
plant nutrients
overall weather patterns 
the region where the plant is grown
humidity
exposure to sunlight
preparation methods
the user’s body type and metabolism
the method of administration 

Terpenes Make a Huge Difference 

Another big factor that can influence how a cannabis plant may react once ingested is how the cannabinoids within a particular plant react with the specific terpenes within the same plant. 

Terpenes provide flavor and scent to not just cannabis but most all plants. And that is not all. They are also healing substances within themselves. They can have an effect on inflammatory levels, antioxidant effectiveness, immune system function, and mood. Many terpenes are antibacterial and antifungal. Some help to restore balance in the endocrine system and the brain. What’s more, terpenes can also affect the way cannabinoids express within a particular cannabis plant. This can have an effect on how that particular cannabis plant affects you!

In the human body, terpenes are also able to get past the “blood-brain barrier” to affect the brain and nervous system. For example, studies suggest that certain terpenes in and of themselves can have a positive effect on anxiety/depression and can also enhance and complement the effects of certain high-THC sativa strains. This is true especially with strains that many people use to help with mood and PTSD. (1)  

In fact, the important role that terpenes play within medical cannabis has inspired some industry experts and scientists to begin to classify cannabis not in terms of indica or sativa dominance, but by terpene type instead. However, there are over 100 different kinds of terpenes that may be present in a single cannabis plant. This makes it very difficult to classify based on terpenes, and so the old “two-strain” classification system remains to this day.(2)   

Indica Strains: The “Go To” For Sleep and Relaxation

All that being said, there is just no denying that there are marked differences between cannabis products labeled “indica” and those labeled “sativa.” The cannabis categorization created in the 1700’s remains and has even encouraged cannabis cultivators to fine-tune the environments in which they grow bud to produce specific effects. 

When it comes to “indica”-dominant strains of medical cannabis, this type is most known for helping with sleep and relaxation. Indica strains can cause a weighty feeling for the user. They may experience increased weakness in the arms and legs that can slide into what is known as “couch lock.” Pure indica and indica-dominant varieties of medical cannabis can also help with sore muscles and pain caused from them as well as general fatigue. 

Cannabis in general has sound science behind it for being effective for sleep, especially for those who suffer from PTSD and insomnia. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 70% of Americans claim that they do not get enough sleep each night. (3)  

A 2008 German study found that medical cannabis can help to reduce the amount of REM sleep a person gets. This is the sleep state where dreams are most likely to occur. For those who suffer from PTSD-related nightmares, this can be a very positive thing for getting a good night’s sleep. (4) 

On the other hand, a 2017 comprehensive review of the literature compiled by the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, California found that CBD in particular can have a therapeutic potential for the treatment of insomnia and that Delta-9 THC helps to decrease the amount of time it can take one to fall asleep. 

Since indica strains do tend to have a higher amount of CBD in them than sativa strains, this is one of the reasons why they remain the cannabis of choice for insomnia. The Palo Alto study warns, however, that high THC cannabis of any kind taken regularly before bed may affect quality sleep over the long term. (5) 

Some examples of strains that can help you sleep or help you simply let go of the fatigue of the day include Hindu Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, and Northern Lights. Terpenes that are known for helping with relaxation include linalool, caryophyllene, myrcene, and terpineol. (6) 

According to experts, these strains are best to consume via vape or smoke shortly before going to bed. This is because these methods will have an effect right away, whereas edibles can be unpredictable in terms of how long they take to kick in. 

“Sativa” Strains: Known for Lifting Mood

While pure indica and indica-dominant strains are great for cozying up on the couch or helping you fall into a sweet slumber, sativa-dominant strains can actually have the opposite effect for many people. High-THC sativa medical cannabis for many, can help with focus, give you energy, enhance creativity, and create an uplifting effect. Many people use sativa strain medical cannabis for mood-related and focusing conditions such as anxiety and ADHD.  

A 2011 report published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that THCV may be a significant neuroprotectant agent against Parkinson’s. (7) The cannabinoid THCV is a close cousin of THC that is found primarily in sativa strain cannabis plants.

Sativa strain cannabis can also be effective for those who suffer from PTSD-related panic attacks. In 2009, the state of New Mexico became the first state to “explicitly authorize” the use of cannabis for people with PTSD. This decision was in large part because of a comprehensive review of over 40 other studies using largely low CBD/high THC strains, which many pure sativa and sativa-dominant strains are. In fact, many of the most commonly used sativa-dominant strains used for their mood-lifting effects, such as sour diesel or strawberry cough, contain less than 1 % CBD. 

On the other hand, a University of Washington study of over 11,000 survey results found the best kinds of cannabis for generalized anxiety are those which were high in both THC and CBD. (8) 

Popular Sativa strains to help with anxiety, panic attacks, focusing, mood lifting and more include Pineapple Purps, Jack Herer, Sour Diesel and Trainwreck. Some terpenes that are often found in sativa strain medical cannabis include limonene and pinene. 

How To Find the Best Strain for YOU!

If you are already using medical cannabis, then you may know that finding the best fit for you isn’t an exact science. Even if you choose a pure indica or a pure sativa variety, there is a chance that it may not have the same effect on you as it does on your neighbor or your best friend.

This is because we are each unique. Our metabolic rate, our sex, our age, and even what we ate for lunch (and when we ate it) will have an effect on the outcome of the medical cannabis that we consume. What’s more, a strain that comes from one region, say California for example, may have a different effect than the same strain coming from, say, Colorado. In a nutshell, just because it has the same name, doesn’t mean it will affect you exactly the same very time. (9)

The best thing to do to find the absolute best medical cannabis for you is to work under the guidance of a qualified medical cannabis educator or coach. Be sure to reach out to us here at United Patients Group or go directly to our consultation center where you can set up a one on one consultation with a medical professional who also specializes in cannabis as a medicine.  Remember, go with us or another, cannabis is not a one size fits all type of medicine.  Age, weight, current health condition, stage of ailment(s), sensitivities, along with any drug to drug interactions and other procedures should be looked at and discussed.  Hand holding, guidance, along with ratios and formulations would also be addressed. 

If you are investigating on your own, then the way to go is with “responsible experimentation.” Based on your needs and what you now know about the general uses of both sativa and indica, choose a stain, ratio and a mode of use that you think would be best for your unique health needs. Start out slow and in moderation. Be sure to record your results. Also, if you are using edibles such as cookies, brownies or gummies, be sure to give the product enough time to work before taking more! 

We hope that the information provided above has armed you with the basic tools to choose the best strains for you. Whether you are using medical cannabis for sleep, for anxiety, or for pain, there is sure to be a strain and ratio that is just what you are looking for! 

Reference:

The “Entourage Effect”: Terpenes Coupled with Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Mood Disorders and Anxiety Disorders
That which we call Indica, by any other name would smell as sweet
American Sleep Apnea Association Statistics 
Effect of illicit recreational drugs upon sleep: cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana
Cannabis, Cannabinoids, and Sleep: a Review of the Literature
The Case for the Entourage Effect and Conventional Breeding of Clinical Cannabis: No “Strain,” No Gain
Symptom-relieving and neuroprotective effects of the phytocannabinoid Δ9-THCV in animal models of Parkinson’s disease
A naturalistic examination of the perceived effects of cannabis on negative affect
Cannabis, a complex plant: Different compounds and different effects on individuals.

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