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Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference?

Cannabis is one of the most popular drugs for health and recreation. One recent study shows that 43% of Americans aged 19-30 used cannabis at least once last year.

If you’re interested in using marijuana for its purported mental or physical health effects, you’re not alone. But, not all marijuana plants have the same impact on the human body.

Before using cannabis yourself, it’s important to learn which cultivars are likely to get you the results you’re looking for. Most cannabis strains on the market are either indica or sativa varieties.

Compare indica vs sativa to get a good sense of which strain category will offer the benefits you want.

In this guide, learn about the differences between the two popular marijuana cultivar categories. Then, discover each strain’s key benefits, potential drawbacks, and notable qualities.

Marijuana Overview: What Is It? How Does It Work?

Marijuana is the substance (drug) created from the cannabis plant. Archaeological evidence suggests the oldest cannabis crops were grown over 2,500 years ago.

Since that early period, humans recognized cannabis for its health- and wellness-boosting effects. Researchers can trace most of cannabis’s effects on the body back to the presence of cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids are unique, chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant (as well as other plants, like liverwort).

Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and Ratios

Cannabinoids interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system is a network that runs throughout the body. It facilitates communication among different cells, tissues, and organ systems throughout the body.

The endocannabinoid system uses “lipid signaling” to communicate. Lipid signaling is a process wherein the body triggers a lipid—a hydrophobic biomolecule—to bind to enzymes or lipid receptors.

This binding impacts how cells respond to lipids, which regularly pass through cell membranes.

The endocannabinoid system facilitates complex reactions. That helps some body parts understand and react to other parts and cells.

The endocannabinoid system exists throughout the body. So, altering how it binds to enzymes or receptors can have wide-ranging effects. As does temporarily blocking certain types of enzyme reception.

Cannabinoids cause and catalyze these alterations.

However, cannabinoids differ from one another. Researchers have discovered over 113 molecularly distinct cannabinoids in cannabis plants.

Each cannabinoid has slightly different effects on the endocannabinoid system. And, the effects of cannabinoids can change in the presence of other cannabinoids, and in compounds called “terpenes.”

Moreover, each individual person has a different set and ratios of enzymes and receptors in his or her body. As a result, the effects of cannabis vary significantly from strain to strain, and from person to person.

Classification: Cultivar vs. Chemovar

Botanists classify and subdivide most plant species into cultivars. Cannabis cultivars are also called “strains.” Humans domesticated certain cannabis strains to improve their utility.

Indica and sativa are two of the most popular cannabis cultivars.

The two plants historically originated in different parts of the world. But, scientists now recognize more molecular similarities between them than originally thought. Some sativa and indica plants are similar “chemovars.”

Cannabis is specifically sought for its physical and mental effects. Thus, it is increasingly common to categorize cannabis plants by chemovar. Different chemovars have diverse chemical makeups.

One recent study identified three medically distinct chemovar profiles in popular cannabis strains. The study isolated divergent terpene profiles. It identified these profiles as the most significant contributor to the diverse effects of the plants.

Though relevant, terpenes are under-studied.

Not all terpenes interact with the endocannabinoid system. Researchers have observed that the most common terpenes don’t bind to endocannabinoid receptors.

Currently, the best hypothesis suggests terpenes play a role in a “mixed mechanism of action.” This indicates they must be present with known cannabinoids to produce or enhance physical effects.

Distinct Cultivars: Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica

Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two cultivars of the cannabis plant. They were first classified by the botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753.

In the 1970s, botanists argued that courts should classify Cannabis indica as a different species. Their intent was to evade legal restrictions.

The argument stemmed from the fact that Cannabis indica originally grew in India. Meanwhile, while Cannabis sativa originally grew in Easter Asia. That said, this was a purely legal argument, not a botanical one.

From a botanical perspective, both C. sativa and C. indica are the same species. They just have different genetic and chemical profiles.

What Is Indica?

Indica is one of the most popular cultivars of the cannabis plant. It was first grown in India thousands of years ago. Since then, its popularity has spread worldwide.

In general, botanists recognize Cannabis indica strains for causing a “body buzz,” rather than a euphoric sensation. People tend to associate C. indica with relaxation, sleepiness, and anti-anxiety effects.

There are a few potential causes of indica’s relaxing and restful impact on the body and mind. First, indica strains often have a high amount of the terpene Myrcene (β-myrcene).

Myrcene Terpenes

Myrcene (β-myrcene) is a terpene that, in isolation, can increase the length and restfulness of sleep. When combined with the terpenes citral and limonene, myrcene has a strong sedative effect.

The terpenes linalool and Terpinolene can also increase relaxation and sedation.

CBN Content

Second, the cannabinoid CBN has demonstrated sedative effects in limited studies. In one comparative analysis, CBN has a sedative effect similar to valium.

Indica strains typically include more CBN than C sativa strains.

CBD Content

Finally, pre-clinical trials indicate the cannabinoid CBD can increase mental relaxation and calm. This, too, contributes to the body-buzz, restful association people have with C. indica.

Ultimately, the biggest difference may be the fact that C. indica strains typically have less THC than C. sativa strains. It is the THC that triggers the most powerful psychoactive effects, like euphoria and an “energized high.”

What Is Sativa?

Cannabis sativa is arguably the second-most-popular marijuana cultivar, after C. indica. Growers recognize indica strains for their relaxing effects. In contrast, botanists note sativa strains for elevating:

  • Euphoria
  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Creativity

Humans have cultivated Cannabis sativa since ancient times. It may even predate other forms of agriculture. People use Cannabis sativa plants to make fibers, medicine, cooking oil, and to enhance religious experiences.

Studies of Cannabis sativa‘s effects show the compound has widely variable impacts on human subjects. Moreso than indica does. As a result, it’s more challenging to chemically categorize sativa than it is indica.

That said, its effects are well-documented.

Sativa strains typically include the following cannabinoids and terpenes, in some ratio:

  • CBD
  • CBN
  • THCV
  • A-pinene
  • Trans-β-ocimene
  • A-terpinolene
  • Trans-caryophyllene
  • A-humulene
  • Myrcene

Some of these cannabinoids and terpenes seem to have contradictory effects. It’s worthwhile to research each compound to determine which specific chemovar is right for you.

Marijuana Strain Comparison: Indica vs Sativa

It’s important to look at both the cultivar’s chemical content and its most typical effects. At the same time, stay aware of each person’s physiological differences.

To use cannabis safely, start with small doses, and keep track of how it affects you personally. Keep your doctor and local cannabis botanist in the loop as you use these popular substances.

Cannabinoid Content

Indica and sativa cultivars have different cannabinoid profiles. The cannabinoids that most directly interact with the endocannabinoid system are:

  • THC
  • THCV
  • CBCA
  • CBD
  • CBN

Talk to your local pharmacists or budtender to learn the specific ratios of each of these cannabinoids in different strains.

New research delineates the effects of each cannabinoid, both individually and when combined.


Overall, Cannabis indica chemovars have a higher amount of CBD, CBGA, and CBN than C. sativa strains. The indica strains have high levels of cannabinoid acids. This contributes to their relaxing and anti-inflammatory effects.


Sativa has a higher ratio of “uplifting” cannabinoids.

This can energize users and improve focus. But, it also means sativa is sometimes contraindicated. People who need to undergo sedation for dentistry or endoscopies may avoid sativa.

Terpene Content

Terpene content varies among strains within the two broad cultivar categories. However, you can still identify trends across indica and sativa varietals.

Indica strains tend to have more terpenes like β-myrcene, which seems to increase restfulness in case studies.

Sativa strains tend to have more fragrant citrus terpenes. They also often have a higher concentration of α-pinene and limonene.

Studies show that α-pinene can be rapidly distributed through the body when inhaled. It typically has an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effect.

This suggests sativa strains may be optimal for:

  • Improving respiratory function
  • Alleviating respiratory distress (from allergies or minor infections)

Typical Physical Effects (Positive)

Both sativa and indica cultivars have a variety of physical effects on the body. In this section, discover the general trends in how the two strains impact the human body physically.

Note that these are general trends observed in case studies, in-vivo/in-vitro studies, and clinical trials. Not all trends are equally well-documented.

Neuropathic Pain Relief

Scientists have studied the potential benefits of both cultivars for neuropathic pain relief. This includes relief from pain caused by fibromyalgia, migraines, and reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

Studies of cannabis for pain relief indicate that indica cultivars are reliable analgesics. They’re more consistently effective than sativa strains. Moreover, the benefits of indica cannabis for neuropathic pain relief often outweigh the risks.

Muscle Spasticity Relief

In case studies, cannabis has relieved muscle spasticity symptoms. These symptoms are common in some patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Endocannabinoid receptors’ interaction with nerve fibers contributes to this painful symptom. Certain cannabinoids seem to alleviate this symptom by binding to those specific receptors.

Chemists find these cannabinoids in sativa cultivars more often than in indica strains. But, it’s important to note each sub-breed will contain a different cannabinoid ratio.

Weight and Diabetes Management

High-THCV strains offer potential therapeutic benefits for diabetic and overweight patients. THCV up-regulates metabolism and increases a sense of satiety.

Indica strains typically have very little THCV content (in any). In contrast, sativa strains from the African continent have much more THCV.

Other Notable Effects

Both cannabis cultivars trigger a range of demonstrable, physical effects in the body. These include:

  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • Anti-nausea effects
  • Altered sensory perception

In general, both indica and sativa strains have anti-inflammatory properties. Indica has more notable anti-nausea effects. Sativa strains alter sensory perception more dramatically, due to their high THC content.

Typical Mental Effects (Positive)

Both indica and sativa cultivars affect the human mind and emotional state. The most-noted positive mental effects include:

  • Enhanced focus
  • Greater creativity
  • Increased relaxation
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Better sleep
  • Mindfulness
  • PTSD symptom relief

In studies, both indica and sativa strains offered PTSD symptom relief to patients.  It brought balance to the essential functions of eating, sleeping, digestion, memory, emotion, arousal, and reproduction.

But, indica strains are more relaxing. They increase sleep, and they reduce anxiety more consistently than sativa strains. In contrast, sativa strains more typically improve focus, enhance energy, and boost creativity.

Potential Physical Risks and Side-Effects (Negative)

Indica and sativa strains both carry some risk of physical side effects.

Sativa strains can reduce the efficacy of sedative medications. They can also hinder the efficacy of certain anti-depressants, particularly when taken long-term.

Indica can cause a drop in blood pressure, and sativa can cause an increased heart rate.

Make sure to look up potential risks and contraindications before trying either strain.

Potential Mental Risks and Side-Effects (Negative)

Some people have negative experiences with the psychoactive compounds in high-THC cannabis strains. This can, rarely, cause hallucinations and worsen PTSD flashback symptoms.

Sativa strains can also create a false sense of enhanced creativity in some users.

Consult with a clinician and knowledgeable botanist before you try either cultivar.

Choose The Right Strain To Improve Your Wellbeing

The choice between indica vs sativa cultivars is complex. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. There’s only finding the right answer for you.

At TeleLeaf, you can connect with expert physicians who’ve mastered the science of medical marijuana. In a telehealth appointment, you can ask all the questions you need to to learn about the best treatment for you.

Contact our experts for a risk-free appointment today.

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