Indica vs. Sativa: What Are The Differences Between The Strains

Cannabis has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and people have long since given up trying to understand this plant. However, the recent legalization has brought on a new controversy – which cannabis is better, indica or sativa?

Indica vs Sativa: The Highlights

  • Even though they belong to the same family of plants, cannabis indica and cannabis sativa are not the same
  • Each type of cannabis strain has specific characteristics, making them more or less suitable for certain uses
  • Cannabis sativa boosts your creative juices and gives you energy
  • Cannabis indica has a relaxing effect, and encourages your mind to wander
  • The cannabinoids – the helpful chemicals in the cannabis plant – differ from one strain to another

A New Controversy

Rarely in life will you find a subject matter that raises more eyebrows and controversy than cannabis. You may know this more commonly as marijuana or “weed.” It’s fair to say that this centuries-old plant has gotten a bad rap over the years, due to its mind-altering effect on the body. But in reality, cannabis brings a lot of positive effects too.

And it’s only when you take it to the extreme that bad things can happen. Even still though, how many times have you heard of a cannabis or marijuana overdose? Probably not too many.

Not to say that you can’t get really sick if you have too much. But under normal circumstances, it’s not that likely.

Fast forward to the present moment and there is more and more hype going on, touting the positive benefits of cannabis strains. Plus, there are more and more states starting to legalize it. What was once a taboo subject and compound, now might end up being legalized across all 50 states. It may take a while, but stranger things have happened.

The Importance of Cannabis Subspecies

Humans are one form of species that roam this earth. But there are many others that blend together to make it a well-oiled and properly functioning mechanism. When you look at cannabis, it’s sort of the same thing, but slightly different.

Obviously, you have the main substance, which would be the marijuana plants themselves. But there are spinoffs of these plants, often referred to as strains, that make this a very interesting crop.

In order for you as a consumer to get the best bang for your buck, it is best to find a particular strain or combination of strains, that can fulfill your needs. Yes, there are different uses for cannabis and there are different effects you can get from them.

This is where the subspecies come in. And they are broken up into a few different strains.

What is Indica?

marijuana flower

Uncommon to popular belief, not all cannabis plants are created equal. The indica strain, for example, has some very specific characteristics. From a physical perspective, it is short and stalky and has wide leaves.

Hence the name “indica,” one can surmise that it originally derived from India. Back in history, the seeds and fiber were harvested for hashish production and it was looked upon for its psychoactive effects on the body.

To go into a little more detail, this is one of the main physical effects you can experience from this particular strain. Additionally, indica strains tend to grow better where the climates are cooler, and the growing seasons are shorter.

Lastly, one who is looking for more of a relaxing effect would choose a derivative of indica.

What is Sativa?

The next species up for discussion is sativa. In complete contrast to indica, sativa plants are tall and skinny, with narrow leaves. It’s not uncommon to find plants that grow in excess of 20 feet.

The paradox with this strain is people tend to seek out a relaxing, subdued effect when using a cannabis product. But, sativa is known to have an opposite effect. It’s primarily known to actually boost the creative senses and give you a spark of energy.

Now you can start to see where this is going. Knowing this little bit of information can already way heavy on your decision of what strain to choose when you visit a dispensary and talk to a budtender. But, the options don’t end there…

What are Hybrid Strains?

If you go to any park in the summer, it is all but guaranteed that you will see at least one dog being walked or chasing down a ball or a Frisbee is thrown by its owner. Upon further investigation, you can clearly make out whether that dog is a purebred or not.

For example, you can’t mistake a Siberian husky or Weimaraner or Labrador retriever. But, there are also a ton of other dogs that will likely be a blend of two or more breeds. They are often coined as mixed breeds or crossbreeds.

When it comes to cannabis, you have another classification called a hybrid. Simply put, it is a mix of two or more strains. If it is produced through a union of an indica and sativa plant, then you have a hybrid of both.

Think of this as parents being two different nationalities. If your mother is 100% Italian and your dad is 100% Lithuanian, then you are a hybrid of the two. And that’s how cannabis can be categorized as well.

What’s the Difference?

Indica vs. Sativa

Infographic: Indica vs Sativa (Click for full size)

Here’s a pretty sad dose of reality. A lot of people suffer unmercifully with conditions that range from moderate to life-threatening. In a lot of these situations, there are drugs to combat the symptoms, but there are also side effects that they can cause. That’s where cannabis comes to the rescue.

According to the Mayo Clinic, medical marijuana, also known as medical cannabis, is often smoked, ingested, inhaled or used in food or tea as a treatment for symptoms and disease. Granted, this is only the case for sufferers who live in a state where it is allowed. Remember, technically cannabis is a Schedule I illegal drug still in most states.

All that being said, the million dollar question is, what’s the difference between each strain? Well, in actuality, this hinges on several factors. And they involve three subcategories known as cannabinoids, terpenes and the method used for dosing. Here is a more in-depth look at these.


If you fix your eye on the word “cannabinoids,” you can clearly extract the root word “cannabis” from it. So you know it is a direct derivative of the plant. More specifically, cannabinoids are chemical components that comprise the cannabis plant. Without them, it would be incomplete.

Think of this in a similar fashion to a food that’s an incomplete protein. It only contains a certain amount of amino acids, so it is known as incomplete.

Well, the cannabinoids round out the cannabis plant, giving it the punch it needs to bring you the sedative or medicinal effects that you aspire to get. Two of the most common cannabinoids are THC and CBD, which you have probably heard of at some point.

First of all, in long form, THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol and CBD stands for cannabidiol. Have you ever heard of people smoking weed and getting “the munchies?” Well, that’s one of the effects that THC has on the body. It is also more potent than CBD from a mind-altering perspective.

And, it is often fancied by people who are looking for quick treatment of nausea and pain, and it gives more of a euphoric feeling.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Although there is a trace amount of THC in CBD strains, for the most part, CBD does not have an intoxicating effect on the body. It is more utilized as an agent for the relief of inflammation, pain, and anxiety by people who don’t want to feel an effect on their mind.

Simply put, they want to steer clear of the “high” feeling associated with THC.

Lastly, you have strains that are a blend of THC and CBD. They are good to use in cases where you want to feel a mild mental effect, yet still, feel alleviation from symptoms you might be experiencing.

Because there is a balance going on, this type of blend is often looked to by people new to cannabis. It will have a less harsh effect on the body.


Did you ever hear of aromatherapy? It’s the use of several different fragrances to get the desired effect in return. Lavender, for example, is a common aroma that is said to relax the mind and help you think more clearly. Well, terpenes are the compounds responsible for giving cannabis its fragrant odor.

And, it is also these fragrances that produce the stimulating or sedating effects seen with cannabis strains. If you want to impress your friends at your next social gathering, tell them that pinene is a stimulating terpene found in cannabis and linalool is one that will help you relax.

And those are just two examples, There are actually multiple terpenes to be found in a cannabis plant.

Dosing and Consumption Method

It is always important to strike a happy balance or “sweet spot,” when you are using a cannabis product. You never want to overdo it. But you also want to make sure that you get enough to have the desired effect.

The best approach is to experiment with a lower dose first and work your way to more powerful forms over time.

And also, play around with the times you take it, how often you use it and what form it is. Smoking might not be for you, so you may choose to go the route of ingesting it.

Once you know your tolerance levels and frequency, you can then move forward comfortably without having to worry about a thing.

Find the Right Cannabis Strain

Marijuana leaf

The right strain for you might not be the same strain that your buddy is using. This is more of abstract science. Strains with high THC content, for example, can cause anxiety, which you might be susceptible to. In this case, you are going to want to choose something with a higher CBD content.

Plus, edibles are quite popular these days. If a longer-lasting effect is what you want, then there would be a good option. Again, it comes down to experimenting and knowing your body. Think of it as creating awareness.

Departing Words

You should have a good grip on what direction to go for your cannabis needs at this point. Do remember that there is no actual real proof that sativa brings you energy and indica relaxes you. It’s more case-specific, so just know that when you enter a dispensary.

Plus, just by simply thinking you will experience certain effects, you most likely can. Mind over matter is very powerful. But regardless of what your reason is for using marijuana, always honor your body and do not push your limits too far. Follow those rules and you’ll be just fine.

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Kevin Rail

Kevin is an internationally known and sought after fitness coach and freelance writer He has been featured in the documentary films, “Fasting” and “The Motivation Factor” by Doug Orchard Films. Kevin specializes in functional training, core training, three-dimensional movement, motivation, and Restorative Arts. He has a B.S. in Sport Management/Fitness & Wellness from the California University of Pennsylvania, is certified through ACSM, AFM, NASM, and ACE, and has written well over 2,000 articles pertaining to health, wellness, and CBD.