head high strain

What’s the Difference Between Indica vs. Sativa?

Jul 2, 2019 11:18 AM EDT

Much of the research that does exist on cannabis shows extremely promising results for medicinal effects, but much presumed knowledge people have of marijuana is based on hearsay. Take the terms indica and sativa, for example. How much do we actually know about what makes a strain of marijuana an indica and what makes another a sativa?

Some information on the distinction is clear. Other information, though, isn’t quite as conclusive. Here’s what you should know.

What’s the Difference Between Indica and Sativa?

The general perception is that sativa strains give mainly a cerebral head high, while indica strains primarily provide a body high. The literal difference between the two is in terms of classification – Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two of the subspecies of the genus Cannabis.

Cannabis sativa is indigenous to hotter climates closer to the equator in areas like East Asia, while Cannabis indica is more indigenous to areas with colder climates. These differences in climates give the strains their distinct appearance, but do they result in a contrasting high?

Despite popular belief, the effects cannabis gives you are likely more accurately attributable to cannabinoids and terpenes, compounds found in the cannabis plant, as opposed to the strains. And while some cannabinoids and terpenes may be found more commonly in an “indica” or a “sativa,” none are found exclusively in one consistently enough to say an indica and a sativa will definitively cause specific effects.

Part of this is due to the crossbreeding of indica and sativa. These are generally known as “hybrids,” but the result is that even many strains that are indica and sativa have a hybrid nature to them.

Cannabinoids & Terpenes

Understanding cannabinoids and terpenes are essential to understanding what cannabis does at all. Cannabinoids play a huge role in the effects of cannabis by interacting with the endocannabinoid system in the human body. There are hundreds of cannabinoids within a marijuana plant, but the two most widely known ones are THC and CBD. Tetrahydrocannabinol – THC – is known for having psychoactive effects, the high associated with marijuana. CBD, more formally referred to as cannabidiol, has many of the anti-anxiety and pain relief effects that have furthered support for medical marijuana.

Terpenes, on the other hand, are more known for giving marijuana a variety of distinctive aromas. Some terpenes give off a floral scent, others a fruity and citrus-y aroma, and others still a pine smell (fittingly, as terpenes can also be found in other plants and fruits). These terpenes do a lot to determine what strain of marijuana you’re dealing with, but in the admittedly little research that exists, they may also play a role in the effects of cannabis just as cannabinoids do.

But again, the effects these terpenes can provide, while consistent with the assumptions of what an indica or sativa does, that effect is no guarantee of one or the other.

What is Indica?

As mentioned earlier, the talk of what is an “indica” and what is a “sativa” is most accurate when discussing it as a subspecies of cannabis, and thus which plant is which. With that in mind, think about a pot leaf. What does it look like? If it’s on the short side and wider, you’re actually thinking specifically of indica.

Indica Plant

The broader leaves and shorter stature of an indica plant are due to their shorter flowering season. That flowering season can make them a more popular choice for growing, and a much easier choice for growing marijuana in an area with a less hot climate. As one season turns to another, you’re far more likely to have an in-bloom Cannabis indica than Cannabis sativa.

In addition, planting indica generally leads to greater yields than sativa.

Indica Effects

The lore of indica is that it is supposed to be ideal for night-time use. Indica is sold as having similar effects to a sedative, good for relaxation or trying to sleep. Part of this lore is that indica is said to have higher concentrations of CBD and lower concentrations of THC. That effect on the body can also be of great help for pain relief, and the relaxation element means it is often recommended for anxiety, important parts of the medical marijuana push. It is also said to be an appetite stimulant for some. Thus, indica strains are known for giving users more of a body high than a head high.

What is it about certain strains of cannabis that can cause these reactions? The terpene myrcene, in addition to bringing an earthy aroma, may have sedating effects, according to a 2011 study. Another terpene that is common in strains that are advertised as an indica is linalool, which in addition to sedating is said to help relieve anxiety. These may be found more often in marijuana advertised as indica, but as more crossbreeding leads to hybrids, they can potentially be found in some sativa strains as well.

What is Sativa?

Think back to the pot leaf you imagined. Was it taller and more spindly than an indica? If so, you’re imagining a sativa leaf.

Sativa Plant

Sativa plants are far more indigenous to warmer climates with longer summers, and take a longer time to fully flower than an indica. The plant grows far taller than an indica plant, and the leaves much thinner than indica leaves. That height can make it difficult for sativa to be grown indoors.

Sativa Effects

Whereas indica’s reputation is one of a sedative that gives you a body high, sativa is said to cause more cerebral effects, perfect for the day time. These effects are far more invigorating, helping one to feel more alert and uplifting to tackle a physical activity or creative endeavor.

Medically, these sativa effects are said to help not only with pain but anxiety, depression, and attention disorders. One explanation for a “sativa” strain causing these effects and potential medical benefits are cannabinoids like THC and CBD – specifically, that sativa strains are said to have higher concentrations of THC. Another are the terpenes. Cannabis terpenes that could possibly produce these effects include limonene, which has shown potential for anti-depression benefits, and pinene, which has anti-inflammatory properties.


Many popular strains of cannabis are hybrids of indica and sativa; even ones considered an indica or sativa are likely to be a hybrid of some sort. Hybrids can have various combinations of terpenes and effects, but because indica and sativa are no longer the definitive terms they used to be for strains, the hybrid term is more accurately used with regards to how it is cultivated and grown. How a hybrid grows, how much it can yield, and what the plant will look like will vary based on which plants you are crossbreeding.

Some hybrids are named based on the strain that is more dominant within it, should it not be a balanced strain. Indica-dominant or indica-dom, as you can likely guess, is a hybrid strain that leans more toward indica. Sativa-dominant, or sativa-dom, is of course the opposite situation.

Cannabis Products

Marijuana legalization continues to expand across the country, despite federal opposition. Last year, Oklahoma voters passed a measure that would legalize medical marijuana. Not only did this measure pass easily (56% yes to 43% no with 99% of precincts reporting), but the law would buck the trend of other state’s cannabis laws by not limiting its prescription to a small list of medical conditions.

Most recently, Illinois became the 11th state to fully legalize marijuana. Medical marijuana had been legal for several years in Illinois, but the new law, set to go into effect in 2020, will also allow for regulated sales of recreational marijuana.

As cannabis becomes more mainstream and support for legalized marijuana becomes more acceptable, the idea of an indica or a sativa has become more muddled. But products containing the cannabinoids and terpenes that give cannabis their effects are becoming more of a mainstay in the medical field.

Are the distinctions between an indica and a sativa actually true? TheStreet explains why there may be more to the effects of cannabis than indica and sativa.