At one point in history, you could probably make some solid claims about the different characteristics of the two. But after a few decades of hybridization and underground breeding, those days are gone. Unless you can score landrace strains, there is really such thing as a true indica or sativa anymore. Every strain available at a dispensary is really a hybrid; some are more indica-dominant, and others are more sativa-dominant.
The difference in physical appearance between Sativa and Indica
Indicas are compact and stocky, with dense, heavy, fragrant buds.
Cannabis plants produce nodes at regular intervals along their stems, and these nodes are the sites at which leaves, branches and flowers (buds) form. Indica buds tend to grow in dense clusters around the nodes of the stem and branches, with relatively short spaces (known as internodal gaps) between each cluster.
Given the same conditions, sativas grow taller than Indicas.
Sativa buds tend grow larger than Indica, as they run along the length of a branch instead of clustering around the nodes. However, they will usually weigh less than Indica when dry, due to their lower density.
Sativa buds also tend to have a less striking odour, both when growing and when dry.
The difference in effect: Indica vs Sativa
Perhaps the most profound, yet trickiest to describe, difference between indica and sativa cannabis strains is their effect. This can be especially difficult to grasp for people who have never used psychoactive substances. Plus, new evidence suggests the cause of the difference is not what we always thought!
There are various posts on this blog about the physical, historical or geographical differences between the two main types of our favourite plant, but this article focuses on the differences between the effects of indica and sativa cannabis strains. (For simplicity’s sake, we will take ‘indica’ to mean ‘indica-dominant’ and sativa to mean ‘sativa-dominant’ in this context.)
Experienced cannabis users often refer to the effects of indica as ‘being stoned’, and the effects of sativa as ‘being high’, so that their audience knows what sort of state of mind they are in. Examples of this could be “I really don’t want to move off this couch right now, I’m so stoned I feel like I’m sitting on a big warm cloud”, and “I’m so high, do you want to bake biscuits or just watch some comedy? Because I’m so high. No, seriously, stop laughing, I am so. High.”.
This is all very well if you have experienced these states yourself, but they are not the easiest thing to accurately describe to those who have not! Writers from Charles Baudelaire to Jack Kerouac have wrapped their minds and words around the altered states created by cannabis, and attempted to take their readers with them to the worlds that they have explored whilst under its influence.
It can be difficult both to explain and to comprehend the difference between indica and sativa highs
A great deal of how the words of a psychonaut will be interpreted, and how successful they are in imparting the subjective truth of their experience, depends on the reader themselves. If the reader has not experienced anything comparable to the different psychoactive effects of indica, sativa, or both, can they really understand what the writer means?
Luckily, this article is not required to compete with the likes of Kerouac and Baudelaire, merely to try to explain to both the initiated and the inexperienced what the various results of consuming sativa or indica can be. It should also be pointed out that one is not objectively ‘better’ than the other; one of the great things about cannabis is how it seems to have an application for every occasion!
While there is some truth to the myth that that indica-dominant strains can produce a more body-heavy high, while sativa-dominant strains provide a more invigorating cerebral high, it isn’t always the case. What really affects the way a strain will make you feel is the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.
So how do indica-dominant strains get their reputation for producing a “couch-locked” feeling? It’s probably because, for the most part, indica-dominant strains have higher levels of the terpene named myrcene. But why sativa-dominant strains get the reputation for being uplifting isn’t well understood.
Again, relying on indica and sativa designations to predict a strain’s effects isn’t the best way to go about it, and we will go into further detail about better methods of picking a strain later in the article. But first, let’s take a look at some of the different effects indicas and sativas have a reputation for.
The most well-known effect of indicas is that they produce a heavy body-high. They are famous for promoting a level of sedation known as “couch lock.” Indicas also have a reputation for giving you the munchies and relieving physical aches and pains. A lot of people enjoy them at bedtime to help promote sleep
Cannabis indica plants normally appear short and bushy with wide leaves. They grow quickly and produce large yields and their CBD content is slightly higher than what you would find in sativa plants. Containing more CBD (but also more THC than hemp), cannabis indica plants have become popular among growers because they flower quickly and produce higher yields. They too have become popular in medicine, especially for patients who need relaxation. Many people prefer to consume indica strains at night because of its effects.
If you’re looking for a more chill cannabis experience, you may want to explore indicas. These strains are all about promoting relaxation, both physical and mental. While sativas tend to inspire an extremely active mind, indicas inspire an extremely relaxed body (hence the term “couch lock”).
Indicas can provide a variety of potential benefits, including:
- Relaxed muscles and body tension: Thanks to their body effects, indicas can be great at reducing muscle tension—so if your shoulders feel tight after a long, stressful day, definitely consider going this route.
- Better sleep: All the chill-inducing effects can make you extremely sleepy— making these strains a clear choice to consume before bed.
- Relieves stress and anxiety: They don’t just have the potential to relax the body, they can also calm the mind. If you’re feeling anxious or dealing with stressful thoughts, indicas can help to slow the spiral so you can actually unwind.
Indicas have a ton of benefits. But, just like sativas, indicas aren’t the right choice for everyone or every cannabis experience. Some of the potential downsides include:
- Increased sleepiness: These strains can promote a better night’s rest, which is great in the evening — but if you consume too early in the day, you could feel tired at an inopportune time.
- Decreased motivation: Because it can be so physically relaxing, indicas can make it hard to get up, get motivated, and get things done (again, it’s not called “couch lock” for nothing).
- More munchies: Sativas have a higher concentration of THCV, a cannabinoid that suppresses the appetite while indicas will stimulate the brain into thinking you’re hungry. Of course, if you’re using cannabis to help with your appetite this isn’t a downside.
Sativas, on the other hand, are known for producing a stimulating “head high.” People like to use them to help banish depression, as well as boost focus and creativity. While some use them to help reduce anxiety, other people claim that a sativa will increase their anxiety. They are famous for producing an overall sense of well-being that is more appropriate for use during the daytime.
Traditionally sativas are known for providing a more uplifting, stimulating high. You’ll often hear them described as “cerebral,” meaning you’ll experience more of a head or mind high than a body high.
There are a number of potential benefits to sativas, including:
- Increased energy: If you’re feeling tired or unmotivated, they can be a good strain to incorporate into your day. Many people who consume cannabis before physical activity use sativas to give them a boost of energy for their workout. The added energy can also help you feel more productive—and taking a few hits can help you knock things off your to-do list.
- Inspires creativity: The cerebral high you get can also help spark creativity, making it a go-to choice for more artistic or creative endeavors, such as music or writing.
- Can provide a mood boost: For some sativas provide a euphoric, happy high that instantly elevates their mood, making it a favorite for people who struggle with depression or other mood disorders.
Clearly, sativas have a number of benefits but they aren’t without their potential drawbacks:
- Increased anxiety. For some people, the classic sativa head high feels less euphoric and more anxiety-inducing—potential side effects such as increased anxiety, nervousness, and paranoia.
- Can be too energizing. While the boost you get can be helpful when you consume during the day, it can be too stimulating for some during the evening (and may mess with your sleep schedule).
The plot twist
Cannabis sativa L. was first classified in 1753 CE; Cannabis indica Lam. in 1785 CE. These classifications were not based upon effect, but botany. Modern cannabis authors such as Robert Connell Clarke built upon these classifications in their early works. They added more information about the type of high or stone that would be experienced from sativas and indicas.
Research into the effects of cannabis led to the discovery, and then synthesis of, CBD in 1963 and THC in 1964. For decades, it was thought that sativa cannabis strains contained higher levels of THC and indica cannabis strains contained higher levels of CBD. The restrictions of prohibition meant that this information mostly spread by word of mouth, but spread it did.
All the information about the different effects of sativa and indica described above has been ‘known’ since at least the 1970s, when dedicated breeding schemes and access to genetics from around the world came together. Ben Dronkers and his contemporaries were instrumental in honing and refining wild landrace strains into the building blocks of the modern cannabis seed industry – indicas, sativas, and hybrids.
The plethora of cannabis hybrids grows exponentially year by year, and research into the chemistry and taxonomy of cannabis barely keeps pace. Although humans have known that cannabis has a psychoactive effect for thousands of years, we have only known why – the existence of the endocannabinoid system – since the late 1980s.
The objective science of cannabis is still in its infancy. Compared to the subjective experience of millions of cannabis users, it’s practically still gestating. What is all this leading to? The revelation that there is barely any difference in CBD and THC levels between sativa and indica.
Better Ways to Choose a Strain
Now that you know the basic differences between indica-dominant and sativa-dominant, let’s take a look at better ways to choose a strain. As we mentioned, after decades of crossbreeding, the indica and sativa designation doesn’t mean much these days. If you really want to dial-in how a strain will make you feel, you need to look beyond indica vs. sativa and focus on cannabinoids and terpenes.
Because these are the two cannabis compounds that drive most of the effects of cannabis.
THC is what produces that famous “high” brought on by cannabis. So most recreational users who are looking for a lot of potency go for high-THC strains. The more THC, the stronger the effects. But with high THC strains, you also run the risk of experiencing more side effects like anxiety. But because everyone has a different physiology, the same stain can easily feel different from person to person. If you are new to cannabis, it’s better to start off with lower or more moderate THC strains to learn your tolerance and preferences.
CBD has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years for its ability to deliver many therapeutic benefits without the psychoactive effects of THC. These types of strains are very popular with people who don’t want to get “high” or who are susceptible to anxiety.
A Balanced Approach
For many people, a more balanced THC-CBD strain is the way to go. A balanced strain can still provide a psychoactive experience that’s less intense than THC-dominant strains. CBD is also known as “the babysitter” of THC and can reduce its ability to produce anxiety. They work in synergy to provide a really enjoyable experience with less potential for negative side effects.
Once you find a ratio of THC and CBD that you enjoy, it’s fun to start considering terpenes and how they affect your experience. There are dozens of terpenes that all provide a wide range of therapeutic properties and give each strain its unique aroma.
Next time you are at the dispensary, ask your budtender for some terpene recommendations based on what types of effects you want to achieve. Some of the most abundant terpenes that you’ll find in cannabis include myrcene, limonene, caryophyllene, linalool, and pinene.
Now that you are well versed in the indica vs. sativa quandary (and better ways to go about picking a strain) it’s time to come down and visit us at Cannavine! We carry indica-dominant, sativa-dominant, hybrids, and every area of the THC-CBD spectrum. We will be happy to help you dial in the perfect stain to achieve your goals.