Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with cannabis probably knows that there are two distinct groups that strains are commonly categorized into: Sativa and Indica. Many cannabis consumers use these two distinctions as a way to predict what effects a certain strain may have on them. Many people even say that they prefer Sativa over Indica, or vice versa.
It is widely believed that Sativa strains give an uplifting and cerebral high that is ideal for activities, social gatherings, and creative projects, while Indica strains provide a relaxing full-body high better suited for unwinding at the end of the day and falling asleep.
Yet, despite this belief being deeply engraved within mainstream cannabis culture, there’s actually zero scientific evidence to support this notion. In fact, research reveals that there are a lot of other factors at play that cause a specific strain to produce certain effects — and whether it is a Sativa or Indica plant has basically no importance at all.
So what’s the real story behind Sativa and Indica? How do they really differ? And what does the science actually say about how and why strains affect us differently? Let’s dive in.
The origins of Sativa & Indica
People have been cultivating cannabis for millenia. In fact, archaeological evidence shows the Chinese and Japanese have been using the plant all the way back to the pre-Neolithic period.
But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that a German botanist named Leonardt Fuchs coined the term “Sativa”, which he used to indicate domesticated hemp.
Later, in the 18th century, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus adopted the term Cannabis Sativa as hemp’s Latin name in his book Species Plantarum. “Sativa” simply means “cultivated” in Latin, referring to the cultivated hemp crops in Europe and western Eurasia that were grown for its fiber and seeds.
About 30 years later, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a description of what he considered a second species of cannabis, named Cannabis Indica. Meaning “of India” in Latin, Cannabis Indica referred to the wild-growing psychoactive variety of cannabis discovered in India, used to produce hashish.
As these two populations of cannabis were kept geographically separate from each other for centuries, natural and artificial selection allowed these two very different types of cannabis to evolve.
Yet, botanists have been arguing ever since about whether Cannabis sativa and Cannabis Indica are in fact two distinct species or whether Cannabis Indica is simply a subspecies of the plant. To this day, this is still a subject of hot debate.
To make matters even more complicated, a third cannabis species was classified by Russian botanist D. E. Janischewsky in 1924, named Cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis basically means “rubble”, as ruderal plant varieties are the first to grow “out of the rubble” in areas that have been cleared of other vegetation. Ruderalis is an auto-flowering variety of cannabis that was found to be growing wild in eastern Europe, first being discovered in Siberia.
How we use the terms today
Now we know that the term Sativa was originally used to describe hemp, while Indica was used to describe the psychoactive cannabis variety. This means that almost all of the cannabis strains people ingest today actually all stem from the original Cannabis Indica breed, while the originally known Cannabis Sativa plant is largely used industrially for hemp as fiber, food, and for CBD as well.
But in the modern world, these terms have shifted to mean something completely different. Somewhere along the way — as the use of cannabis increased and cannabis culture spread across the globe — the terms Sativa and Indica have evolved into a new way to categorize the thousands of cannabis strains that circulate the market today.
- Originally classified as Cannabis Indica ssp. Indica
- Tall and thin, growing 5 to 18 feet tall or more
- Long and narrow leaves
- Less branches
- Commonly associated effects: Energizing, stimulating “mind high,” induces productivity and creativity
- Originally classified as Cannabis Indica ssp. afghanica
- Short and bushy, growing 2 to 4 feet tall
- Broad leaves
- Buds tend to be wider
- Compactly branched
- Commonly associated effects: Relaxing, calming, pain relief, sleep-inducing
What does the research say?
Even though the belief that Sativa and Indica strains have different inherent properties and effects is a widely held assumption, the truth is that there is no scientific evidence to confirm this. It’s actually just a very popular myth.
“There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the Sativa/Indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility,” explains Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, an expert on the human endocannabinoid system. “One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant.”
In short, the only true difference between Sativa and Indica cannabis plants are the way they look and grow — Sativas grow long and tall while Indicas are short and bushy. Plus, all cannabis strains we are familiar with today have long become hybrids of various combinations of different Sativas and Indicas anyhow.
So if the Sativa/Indica classification is not proven to be a valid way to determine the effects a particular cannabis strain will have on you, then what factors actually do matter?
In reality, a combination of three factors drive the effects of cannabis strains: the chemical profile, your own biology and tolerance, and the consumption method.
Let’s start with the chemical profile. Cannabis is made up of hundreds of chemical compounds that lead to a wide range of different therapeutic and recreational effects one may experience from any particular strain. One of the major leaders of these effects are called cannabinoids.
THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive cannabinoid that makes users feel high, euphoric, and can reduce pain and anxiety. However, too much THC can cause dizziness and other side effects.
CBD (cannabidiol) is non-intoxicating but can provide antianxiety, antipsychotic, and antidepressant effects. CBD also reduces inflammation and pain.
The ratio of THC and CBD levels within a given cannabis strain can tell you far more about what its expected effects may be, as opposed to merely knowing if the strain is Sativa or Indica dominant.
Aside from cannabinoids, cannabis also contains aromatic compounds called terpenes. Terpenes are what make different cannabis strains smell like citrus, pine, fuel, etc. A strain’s terpenoid content plays a major role in the energizing versus sedating effects that popular cannabis culture commonly (and mistakenly) attributes to Sativas versus Indicas.
Some claim that the reason Indicas give a sedating effect is because they have higher levels of CBD in them, but this is also a myth — it’s actually driven by terpenes.
“The sedation of the so-called Indica strains is falsely attributed to CBD content when, in fact, CBD is stimulating in low and moderate doses,” Dr. Ethan Russo explained in the above interview. “Rather, sedation in most common Cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic. In contrast, a high limonene content (common to citrus peels) will be uplifting on mood.”
Flavonoids also play an important role in the odor, flavor, and effects of cannabis strains. Flavonoids are not as well researched as cannabinoids and terpenes, but so far researchers have identified about 20 different flavonoids in cannabis that provide different medicinal effects. For example, some flavonoids are anti-inflammatory while others can reduce anxiety.
The synergy of different cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and additional phytochemicals all work together to create the unique and diverse subjective and medicinal effects any given cannabis strain may have.
Other factors at play
Each individual’s own biology and tolerance to cannabis also plays a role in how different strains will affect them. Someone with a high tolerance may not feel any effects at all, while a sensitive user may experience very strong effects from the same strain and dosage.
This is why it is important to pay attention to the chemical profile of strains as opposed to focusing on whether it is a Sativa or Indica. High THC strains will produce much stronger psychoactive effects in comparison to strains low in THC. Strains high in CBD can provide pain relief, without much of a high to accompany it.
Consumption method also changes how cannabis affects you, and for how long. Smoking or vaping cannabis will provide a more short-term and fast-acting effect, while ingestion takes a while to feel the effects, but lasts over a longer period of time.
What are hybrid strains?
The truth is, pretty much all cannabis strains in existence today are hybrids of Sativa and Indica.
The only exception to this rule are what are called landrace strains. Landrace strains are the original ancient strains that have not been interbred and thus have less diluted DNA. They are basically the ancestors of all of the modern hybrid strains we all know today. Landrace strains include Hindu Kush, Pure Afghan, Acapulco Gold, and Panama Red, among some others. They are quite rare today.
But landrace strains aside, cannabis cultivators have been selectively interbreeding cannabis strains for hundreds of years in order to produce hybrids with new and unique effects and properties. Certain strains may have been bred to target a specific effect for medicinal uses. The strain Charlotte’s Web, for instance, was bred specifically to treat epilepsy.
The bottom line
There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done to better understand the effects of cannabis. But if there is one thing the existing scientific research shows, it’s that whether a strain is a Sativa or Indica has very little impact on what its effects will be.
Instead, examining the ratios of a strain’s chemical profile will help consumers keep themselves informed on what the effects may be like. This is especially useful if you’re searching for the best strain to help alleviate their medical condition.
“I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the Sativa/Indica nomenclature and rather insist that accurate biochemical assays on cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles be available for Cannabis in both the medical and recreational markets,” said Dr. Russo. “Scientific accuracy and public health demand no less than this.”