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Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: What’s the difference?

September 20, 2018
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When browsing Leafly or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you may notice strains are commonly broken up into three distinct groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Most consumers have used these three cannabis types as a standard for predicting effects.

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: Know the effects of each cannabis type

Indica strain effects

Indica strains are believed to be physically sedating, which make them perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed.

Sativa strain effects

Sativa strains are said to provide invigorating, uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects.

Hybrid strain effects

Hybrid strains are thought to fall somewhere in between the indica-sativa spectrum, depending on the traits they inherit from their parent strains.

This belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is so deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture that budtenders typically begin their strain recommendations by asking you which of these three types you prefer.

However, data collected by cannabis researchers suggests these categories aren’t as definitive as we thought—in other words, there’s little evidence to suggest that indicas and sativas exhibit a consistent pattern of chemical profiles that would make indicas inherently sedating and sativas uplifting. We know that indica and sativa cannabis strains look different and grow differently, but this distinction is primarily useful only to cannabis growers.

(Leafly)

So how exactly did the words “indica” and “sativa” become the standard descriptors for marijuana strains, and how meaningful are they when choosing a strain?

Indica vs. sativa: The origin and evolution of strain terminology

The words “indica” and “sativa” were introduced in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The term sativa, named by Carl Linneaus, described hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia, where it was cultivated for its fiber and seeds. Cannabis indica, named by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, describes the intoxicating varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

Although the cannabis varieties we consume largely stem from Cannabis indica, both terms are used—even if incorrectly—to organize the thousands of strains circulating the market today.

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Here’s how terms have shifted since their earliest botanical definitions.

Sativa definition

“Sativa” is the tall, narrow-leaf variety of cannabis plants thought to induce energizing effects. However, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) varieties were originally Cannabis indica ssp. indica.

Examples of sativa strains:

Indica definition

“Indica” is the stout, broad-leaf variety of cannabis plants thought to deliver sedating effects. These broad-leaf drug (BLD) varieties are technically Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.

Examples of indica strains:

Hemp definition

What we call “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.

Related

Hemp 101: What Is Hemp, What’s It Used for, and Why Is It Illegal?

What is hybrid marijuana?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it historically done underground to evade authorities—strains that have pure indica or pure sativa lineages are rare. Most strains referred to as “indica” or “sativa” are, in fact, hybrids, with genetics inherited from both subspecies.

Examples of hybrid strains:

With the mass commercialization of cannabis, the taxonomic distinctions between cannabis species and subspecies got turned on its head and set in stone. It seems the contemporary use of indica, sativa, and hybrid descriptors is here to stay, but as an informed consumer, you should understand the practical value of these categories—which brings us to the research.

New research on indica and sativa strains

The indica, sativa, and hybrid system we use to predict cannabis effects is no doubt convenient, especially when first entering the vast, overwhelming world of cannabis. With so many strains and products to choose from, where else are we to begin?

“The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”
Ethan Russo, cannabis researcher and neurologist

The answer is cannabinoids and terpenes, two words you should put in your back pocket if you haven’t already. We’ll get to know these terms shortly.

But first, we asked two prominent cannabis researchers if the sativa/indica classification should have any bearing on a consumer’s strain selection. Ethan Russo is a neurologist whose research in cannabis psychopharmacology is respected worldwide, and Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., is a chemist who founded the first independent testing lab, The Werc Shop, to analyze cannabis terpenes in a commercial capacity.

“The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense,” Russo told Leafly. “The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

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Raber agreed, and when asked if budtenders should be guiding consumers with terms like “indica” and “sativa,” he replied, “There is no factual or scientific basis to making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers].”

What this means is not all sativas will energize you, and not all indicas will sedate you. You may notice a tendency for these so-called sativas to be uplifting or for these indicas to be relaxing, especially when we expect to feel one way or the other. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and the chemical data doesn’t reflect a clear or perfect predictive, pattern.

If indica and sativa aren’t predictive of effects, what is?

The effects of any given cannabis strain depend on a number of different factors, including the product’s profile of compounds such as terpenes and cannabinoids, your unique biology and tolerance, dose, and consumption method. By understanding how these factors change the experience, you’ll have the best chance of finding that perfect strain for you.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD (the two most common) are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.

  • THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) makes us feel hungry and high, and relieves symptoms like pain and nausea. For a full list of THC’s potential effects, read more here.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound known to alleviate anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other medical ailments. For more information on CBD, read more here.
Related

A list of major cannabinoids in cannabis and their effects

Cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids, but start by familiarizing yourself with THC and CBD first. Instead of choosing a strain based on its indica/sativa/hybrid classification, consider basing your selection on these three buckets instead.

THC-dominant strains

THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side effects associated with THC, try a strain with higher levels of CBD.

Examples of THC-dominant strains:

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CBD-dominant strains

CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC, and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needing clear-headed symptom relief.

Examples of CBD-dominant strains:

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Balanced THC/CBD strains

Balanced THC/CBD strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis’ signature high.

Examples of balanced THC/CBD strains:

Cannabis strains present three distinct cannabinoid profiles called “chemotypes.” Space Queen is an example of a THC-dominant strain (as shown by diamond shapes), Canna-Tsu contains an approximate balance of THC and CBD (composed of both diamonds and circles), and Sour Tsunami has very little THC, but elevated levels of CBD (made up of only circles). (Leafly)

It’s worth noting that both indica and sativa strains exhibit these different cannabinoid profiles. “Initially most people thought higher CBD levels caused sedation, and that CBD was more prevalent in indica cultivars, which we now know is most definitely not the case,” Raber told Leafly. “We are more prone to see some CBD in sativa-like cultivars, but there isn’t a systemic rule or relationship in that regard.”

StrainSativa, Indica, or HybridAverage THC %
Sour DieselSativa19%
Jack HererSativa17.5%
Do-Si-DosIndica20.5%
Purple PunchIndica19.5%
Blue DreamHybrid19%
GelatoHybrid17.5%

Terpenes

If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in lavender flowers, oranges, hops, pepper, and of course, cannabis. Secreted by the same glands that ooze THC and CBD, terpenes are what make cannabis smell like berries, citrus, pine, fuel, etc.

“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects.”
Jeffrey Raber, Founder of the Werc Shop

While research has yet to uncover how terpenes, whether by themselves or combined with other terpenes, shape the effects of different cannabis strains, we do know that terpenes can make us feel stimulated or sedated, depending on which ones are produced. Pinene, for example, is an alerting terpene while linalool has relaxing properties. There are many types of terpenes in cannabis, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with common terpenes—especially myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, and terpinolene, since they’re the most likely to have a pronounced presence in cannabis.

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Infographic: How Do Cannabis Terpenes Affect the Body?

“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects,” Raber said. “Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids.”

According to Raber, a strain’s indica or sativa morphology does not specifically determine these aromas and effects. However, you may find consistency among individual strains. The strain Tangie, for example, delivers a distinctive citrus aroma, while DJ Short Blueberry should never fail to offer the hallmark scent of ripe berry.

So now we know that terpenes are responsible for the different aromas found in cannabis and that, according to early research, they may deliver unique therapeutic effects. But to what extent do they make a strain energizing or sedating? And are there patterns that could explain why indicas and sativas sometimes feel different?

Take a look at lab data illustrating terpene trends among indicas, sativas, and hybrids:

(Leafly)

Above, you’ll find the levels at which indica, sativa, and hybrid strains tend to produce common terpenes. They’re inclined to present relatively similar patterns in terpene profiles with some interesting points of variation, one of which is terpinolene.

Terpinolene is a terpene found at high levels in only a small subset of cannabis strains, most of which are sativas and hybrids. Some terpinolene-dominant strains you’ve probably seen or heard of include Dutch Treat, Jack Herer, Golden Goat, and Ghost Train Haze. You’ll find terpinolene in many strains related to these, like Jack crosses (e.g., XJ-13, J1, Chernobyl) or Golden Goat hybrids (e.g., Golden Pineapple, Golden Ticket), indicating that there may be genetic consistency.

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What is terpinolene and what does this cannabis terpene do?

Still, a majority of sativa strains are not terpinolene-dominant. But if you’ve tried terpinolene-dominant strains in the past, you may have noticed they’re similar in effect. What this suggests is that strains with similar cannabinoid and terpene combinations may offer more reliable consistency in effects.

Terpene profiles also allow us to deepen our understanding of potential variations within each cannabis type. Let’s take three hybrid strains for example—ACDC, Chernobyl, and OG Kush.

All three of these are “hybrid” strains, but each may deliver very different effects. (Leafly)

Although each categorically identifies as “hybrids,” they’re vastly different strains on a chemical level. ACDC is a gentle CBD strain commonly chosen by those who are sensitive to THC and its anxious side effects. Chernobyl is a blissful and uplifting strain that is preferred by many for daytime activities. OG Kush delivers a heavy-handed punch of euphoria that is commonly chosen by seasoned smokers or reserved for evening sessions.

By going a step beyond their indica, sativa, or hybrid classification to consider cannabinoids and terpenes, you’re more likely to identify the specific strains you like or don’t like. If you can, smell the strains you’re considering for purchase. Find the aromas that stand out to you and give them a try. In time, your intuition and knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes will guide you to your favorite strains and products.

Biology, dosing, and cannabis consumption method

Lastly, consider the following questions when choosing the right strain or product for you.

Strain consideration #1: How much experience do you have with cannabis?

If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses.

Strain consideration #2: Are you susceptible to anxiety or other side effects of THC?

If so, try a strain high in CBD.

Strain consideration #3: Do you want the effects to last a long time?

If you do, consider edibles (starting with a low dose). Conversely, if you seek a short-term experience, use inhalation methods or a tincture.

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There are many factors to consider when choosing a strain, but if you find that indica strains consistently deliver a positive experience, then by all means, stick to those. However, if you’re still searching for that ideal strain, these are important details to keep in mind.

What cannabis strain is right for you?

This may seem overwhelming, especially if you’re a budtender whose job it is to guide consumers to the right product. Ironically, the more you know about cannabis, the more questions seem to arise. But understanding the basic properties of cannabinoids, terpenes, and consumption methods will often answer the most fundamental question of cannabis: What product is right for me?

Finding the right strain for you requires a bit of trial and error. Still, if you’re new to cannabis, here are some helpful beginner resources to begin your search for that perfect experience:

For budtenders, be aware of the basis of your recommendation, especially for customers treating medical ailments. Educate yourself on the benefits of different cannabinoids and terpenes, and use that knowledge to make a recommendation beyond the oversimplifications and marketing tactics embedded in the sativa/indica distinction.

“In the future, I’d like to see the terms ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ be abandoned in favor of a system in which the consumer tells the budtender what s/he would like to have in terms of effects from their cannabis selection, and then study the offerings together,” Russo said. “If a buzz is all that is wanted, then high THC with limonene or terpinolene would be desirable. If someone, in contrast, has to work or study and treat their pain, then high CBD with low THC plus some alpha-pinene to reduce short-term memory impairment would be the ticket.”

Cannabis is a personal experience, and how you select it is, too. Understanding its nuances should help give you an alternative perspective on what qualities to look for in a strain. Some of you are happy to sit down with any strain, any time, and that’s okay. For others, this level of precision in strain selection is key to having a good experience—and feeling good is what cannabis is all about.

Bailey Rahn's Bio Image

Bailey Rahn

Bailey is a senior content manager at Leafly, specializing in strains and health. She's spent 7+ years researching cannabis products, spreading patients’ stories, and exploring healthy ways of integrating cannabis into daily life.

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