Skip to main content

Cannabis Subspecies: Indica vs. Sativa What’s the Difference?

Over 1,000 distinct strains of cannabis have been developed during the past several decades. Patients and recreational users can now choose which strain is best for them based on their effects and characteristics. For patients, some cannabis species are best suited to treating specific symptoms. Recreational users can choose a strain depending on the desired results – do you want full-body effects, to promote relaxation and improve your sleep? Or are you looking for a “head high” – decreased anxiety and increased creativity and focus? For patients and recreational users alike, understanding the differences between cannabis subspecies can help them make the best choice.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering shrubs that contains three subspecies: Indica, Sativa, and ruderalis. Ruderalis plants are tiny and produce little medicine; they don’t produce potent effects and they give off an unpleasant odor. Because of this, ruderalis strains are generally avoided by breeders and growers, although some cannabis farmers will breed ruderalis with other types like Sativa and Indica. The ruderalis plant has a rapid growth cycle – combining it with more potent strains can produce a desirable product. But the main focus of the medical and recreational cannabis community is Indica and Sativa strains.

Indica and Sativa plants differ in both their physiological effects and in their appearance. Indica plants are short and broad, with “chunky” foliage. They have short flowering cycles and grow sufficiently in cold, short-season climates. Sativa plants are taller and skinnier – sometimes described as lanky – with narrow, pointed leaves. They have longer flowering cycles and prefer warm temperatures and long seasons. Indica strains have musty, earthy, and skunky aromas, while sativas have fruity, spicy scents. The difference in fragrance is caused by terpenes, the plant’s chemical relatives of THC and CBD.

Indica Sativa

Image 1: Indica | Image 2: Sativa

Sativa plants take longer to develop and produce less medication (flowers) than Indica types. Indica strains have long been the most popular on the black market, where priority goes to profit rather than consumer benefits. Patients should never accept or consume cannabis treatments without understanding the strain and whether they were produced, dried, cured, and tested for purity and contaminants.


The most significant distinctions between these two subspecies of cannabis are their medical effects and how they impact energy levels and productivity. Indicas are commonly considered to have a sedative effect that can help people relax, and are often recommended for evening or nighttime consumption. Indica strains with potent properties might induce what is known as “couchlock,” a condition in which patients become so relaxed that they can’t get up from the sofa.

Sativas, on the other hand, are often considered uplifting and cerebral, increasing creativity and productivity. You may have heard – and this won’t be the last time that you do – that Indicas provide a “body high,” while Sativas offer a “mind high.” 

While this is the universally-applied approach to categorizing Sativa and Indica strains – sativas are energizing, indicas are relaxing – a more nuanced approach is more helpful (and more accurate). Each cannabis plant can produce varying effects, even within the same type. These effects depend on the plant’s chemical composition and the growing process used. Instead of choosing based on strain type alone, consumers should consider the descriptions provided by growers and dispensaries. 

This is where terpenes come into play. Before cultivators, growers, breeders, and black-market dealers knew about terpenes, simply describing indica strains as sedating and sativa strains as euphoric was considered adequate. Now, scientists are proving that the appearance and maturation rates of the two different strains do not consistently correspond to the different chemical compositions of the plants. 

Medical cannabis

Medical cannabis cultivators create a wide range of strains within indica and sativa categories to provide personalized medicine for each patient’s unique combination of disease, taste, and lifestyle. Many patients have jobs or obligations that demand attention and energy; they can’t always tolerate the sedative effects of indicas. Some patients need to focus on finding a potent non-opiate painkiller, and will choose a powerful indica that is well-known for its relaxing effects and medical advantages.

Cultivators and dispensaries are sensitive to the subjective efficacy of different strains for individual patients, and they produce and distribute as many kinds as feasible for targeted diseases. They focus on various conditions, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and epilepsy.

Sativa strains are typically better for mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. Indicas are usually better for discomfort and inflammation, making them useful for those who have arthritis, fibromyalgia, or cancer. However, because so many sicknesses have adverse effects such as depression and sleeplessness, a patient must consider treating both the fundamental disease and its day-to-day symptoms.

With so many varieties available, individuals who use medical cannabis should collaborate with their doctor and dispensary to select strains that have already been shown to benefit other sufferers, especially those with the same condition.

This is generally not an overnight process, and it can take a lot of time and several attempts to identify the best strain for an individual. Patients are encouraged to experiment with new strains in search of greater strength or a higher cannabinoid profile that provides better relief. Because the effectiveness of cannabis is so subjective, other patient opinions should only be used as a guideline. For a patient, the true test of a particular strain of Indica or Sativa occurs when it is personally used during periods of pain, nausea, or sleeplessness. It’s important to note – for medical and recreational users alike – that an individual’s particular neurochemistry can alter the way a plant’s chemicals affect the brain. 

Hybrid Cannabis Strains: An Overview

Hybrids are new and distinctive strains that result from crossbreeding parents of different species. Any two strains may be mixed to produce a hybrid. Indica/Sativa mixes are popular and characterized as producing an “alert mellowness” and productivity. Medical cannabis breeders can also mix indicas with one another or use two sativas as parents.

A hybrid may theoretically have health benefits from both its parents. Breeders may “cross” any two strains they choose to create a new strain with the most significant medical efficacy for particular illnesses.

For medical-marijuana users, access to so many hybrid strains means a compromise that can reduce pain and inflammation while not putting a patient to sleep in the middle of the day. Patients that must medicate in the morning or mid-day – usually for nausea and discomfort – frequently pick a Sativa-dominant hybrid, but they’ll switch to an indica-dominant strain at night and for maximum pain relief.

Indica-dom and Sativa-dom are terms used to describe strains with more indica characteristics than sativa ones (and vice versa). Strains that are 60 percent Sativa and 40 percent indica are labeled “60/40,” for example. A percentage might also be used, such as “70 percent indica” or “80 percent Sativa.

Heirloom & Enduring Landrace Strains

Landrace strains have evolved naturally in their native environments and haven’t been crossed with other plants. Because they aren’t crossbred, landrace strains provide a pure example of either Sativa or Indica, free of human influence. Landrace strains are almost always a hundred percent Indica or Sativa, resulting from hundreds of years of inbreeding in specific weather and geographical conditions.

Heirlooms are landrace strains that have been developed outside of their native environment, such as plants or seeds produced in Califonia and subsequently grown in another country. Some of these strains ‘ distinguishing characteristics are lost when grown outside the region in which they evolved.

Durban Poison, a sativa from South Africa; Afghan Indica, a Sativa from Afghanistan; Malawi Gold, a Sativa from Southeastern Africa; and Panama Red, named for its origin, are just a few examples of landrace strains.

Landrace sativas are grown in Asia, Anatolia, and Northern Africa. These climates offer extended summers and intense sun, which have allowed these strains to thrive. Indicas may be found in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. If cannabis plants are cultivated in an indoor or outdoor environment that does not replicate the climate of their natural habitat, they will not achieve their full potential.

Ruderalis landrace strains are located throughout Europe and Asia, including the Balkan Peninsula, Central Europe, Russia, and Siberia. Typically, as in the Himalayas, such plants are used to make traditional hand-rolled hash for impoverished communities who live on black market profits from the concentrate, which eventually appears in smoking cafes throughout Europe.


Cannabis plants include hundreds of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. These natural components are primarily responsible for the negative and positive effects of cannabis use.

Researchers continue to learn about what each of the cannabinoids does. They have identified THC and cannabidiol (CBD) as the two major cannabinoids and have categorized several lesser-known compounds.

These include:

  • THC. The psychoactive component in cannabis plants is THC. It’s accountable for the “high,” or euphoric state felt after using marijuana. THC levels have been rising as growers strive to create hybrid strains with higher chemical levels.
  • CBD. CBD is not intoxicating or euphoric. It does not create a “high.” Still, it may produce a variety of physical advantages, including pain and nausea alleviation, epileptic seizure prevention, and migraine relief.
  • CBN. Cannabidiol (CBN) is used to relieve the symptoms and adverse effects of neurological diseases, including epilepsy, seizures, and muscular rigidity.
  • THCA. tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid similar to THC. Its potential advantages include reducing inflammation in arthritis and autoimmune disease. It may also help with the management of symptoms associated with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
  • CBG. Cannabigerol (CBG) is believed to aid with the alleviation of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression symptoms.


Terpenes are another cannabis plant component that receives a lot of attention.

The terpenes in cannabis plants directly affect the odor of the plant. They may also impact the effects that certain strains have.

Common terpenes include:

  • Bisabolol. The terpene bisabolol has a chamomile and tea tree oil scent and is said to aid in the reduction of inflammation and irritation. It may also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits.
  • Caryophyllene. The pungent, spicy molecule may help with anxiety and depression, and stomach ulcers.
  • Linalool. Linalool is claimed to help with relaxation and mood, thanks to its floral undertones.
  • Myrcene. This earthy, herbal chemical comes from the most popular terpene. It might assist with anxiety and sleeplessness.
  • Ocimene. The chemical responsible for the basil, mango, and parsley aroma is Ocimene. The suggested direct effects of this terpene include alleviating congestion and preventing viruses and germs.
  • Pinene. This terpene has the most potent pine scent of any. It is said to aid in the improvement of memory, pain reduction, and some unpleasant THC side effects like nausea and attention difficulties.
  • Terpinolene. Cannabinoids with this chemical structure might have a fruity odor, such as apples, cumin, and conifers. It may have sedative, antibacterial, and antifungal effects.
  • Limonene. This terpene has a bright and zippy citrus scent. It is supposed to make you happier and less tense.
  • Humulene. This is a terpene with a distinct earthy and woody quality, similar to hops or cloves. Cannabis strains containing this chemical may be beneficial in the treatment of inflammation.
  • Eucalyptol. This odor is refreshing and revitalizing, with notes of eucalyptus and tea tree oil. It is said to aid in the reduction of inflammation and bacteria.

Potential side effects

Although cannabis has been shown to have several health benefits, it may also cause negative side effects.

This includes:

  • dry mouth
  • dry eyes
  • dizziness
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • lethargy
  • increased heart rate
  • decreased blood pressure

THC is primarily responsible for most of these effects, not CBD or other cannabinoids. 

Cannabis smoking or vaping can also irritate your lungs and airways. This might cause hacking and respiratory issues. Cannabis edibles in the form of chews, sweets, or cookies are less likely to impact your general health.

While THC and other cannabinoids are absorbed more slowly, they are far more potent since they convert to 11-hydroxy-THC, generating stronger psychoactive effects that can last for hours or even days.


Cannabis is not lawful in all areas. For much of the United States, cannabis products have been illegal for a long time. Today, several states have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes (or both), but it is still prohibited by federal law. You could be subjected to legal ramifications if you are not aware of the legislation, and, of course, if you reside outside of the United States, you will be subject to different laws.

New Strains Are Always Being Invented

While there are still cannabis prohibitions in 17 states, the United States currently boasts an $8 billion legal cannabis industry. New strains of cannabis are still being developed, many of which are mixes of current strains that show strong pain-killing or anti-inflammatory effects. 

With apparently limitless strains and more in the works, consumers have more options than ever when choosing the best cannabis strains for themselves. It seems that cannabis is heading toward becoming a standardized product, and research increasingly supports identifiable characteristics and effects of different strains. However, for someone seeking a particular high, their best resource may still be other users who can speak to their own experiences and recommend specific varieties.