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Curious About The Indica Vs. Sativa Debate? Learn The Real Difference

A stoner’s guide to what you need to know.

by Sam Boone
Originally Published: 
Indica Vs. Sativa
OlegMalyshev/Getty Images

Pot. Weed. Grass. 420. Ganja. Dope. Herb. CBD oil. Smoke it. Eat it. Drink it. Vape it. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Do you want to feel stimulated, chill, or somewhere in between? Do you want to feel energized enough to clean, relaxed enough to watch stoner movies, or land in the middle? Marijuana growers, sellers, and buyers have explained the effects of a marijuana strain by classifying it as “indica” or “sativa.” Sativa is known as a head high that can make you happy and give you energy — great for daytime, like a cup of coffee. Indica, on the other hand, has a total-body calming effect and is the perfect way to unwind at night. But what if we told you that those classifications don’t tell the whole story about what you’re putting in your body? Have we been comparing indica vs. sativa all wrong?

Indica Vs. Sativa: The Full Breakdown

A Little Cannabis History

Cannabis dates back at least 12,000 years, evolving alongside humans. The plant originated in Central Asia, but there was no trace of the plant in the Western Hemisphere before the 16th century. So, where do indica and sativa fit in this picture? They’re two species of cannabis. Sativa, by definition, means “cultivated” in Latin and is where hemp products are derived.

Indica is Latin for “of India,” which is where the resin-heavy psychotropic cannabis species originates. Resin is a sticky compound secreted by plants. In cannabis, the resin contains cannabinoids (like CBD and THC) and terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic molecules that give cannabis its unique aromas and flavors like citrus, berry, or pine. Over 100 different terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant, and every strain has a unique terpene composition.

Blinding You With Science

There exist at least 100 different cannabinoids — or naturally occurring chemicals found in cannabis. THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the most active cannabinoid and gets you high as a kite. The cannabinoid CBD is known to help with anxiety and pain.

There’s some science to indica making you feel sleepy and sativa making you feel more awake. Indica typically has higher THC, CBN, and myrcene content. CBN is the cannabinoid that makes your feel sedated. Myrcene works in tandem with the higher THC levels and creates the full-body-high feeling. Sativa typically has lower THC, which means you can smoke the same amount and not feel as high. It also has a higher level of limonene, which gives you an energized effect.

Hybrids, Hybrids Everywhere

Indica plants are short and stocky with broad leaves, while sativa plants tend to be taller and skinnier with thin and pointed leaves. However, today’s cannabis has undergone hybridization and cross-breeding over the years, with few written records of their distinct genetics and evolution. There is almost no “pure” strain of either indica or sativa available anymore.

Popular hybrid marijuana strains such as the Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, and Kush have a combination of sativa and indica effects. It’s believed they offer users a more balanced high. Indica-dominant strains might leave you feeling relaxed, whereas sativa-dominant strains can be uplifting and invigorating. Hybrids that are 50/50 fall somewhere in between. The opposite could also be true for some people. Bottom line: It’s difficult to guess the effects of a specific strain on a person based solely on the species.

A big reason why? Keep reading.

The Entourage Effect

In every cannabis flower, the compounds interact to create what is known as the Entourage Effect. Akin to a symphony, the chemicals found in cannabis work together to create an effect greater than each could provide on their own. These compounds form an entourage in support of a larger goal. Now imagine these compounds working with the chemistry of your body, too.

Cannabis consumption can result in unique effects such as:

  • Arousal
  • Creativity
  • Energy
  • Confusion
  • Euphoria
  • Giggling
  • Focus
  • Happiness
  • Hungryness
  • Thirst
  • Relaxation
  • Talkativeness
  • Tingling
  • Paranoia
  • Forgetfulness

The same cannabis may affect you differently than it affects someone else. It would not be accurate to label all cannabis simply as “sedating” or “stimulating.” When you experience a sedative effect from indica or mental clarity from sativa, you’re observing the effect of the cannabis compounds within that strain reacting with your unique body chemistry and physiology.

As iconic stoner Bob Marley said, “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.”

Dr. Ethan B. Russo, a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, past president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, and former chairman of the International Association for Cannabinoid Research (among many other impressive titles and accolades), provided his insights in a 2016 indica vs. sativa study. “There are biochemically distinct strains of cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”

Oversimplification doesn’t show a complete enough picture. Dr. Russo encourages the scientific community, press, and public to abandon the indica vs. sativa nomenclature and instead insists cannabinoid and terpene profiles be available for each strain.

Sample the Goods

The best way to know how certain strains will affect you is to try them out. Sounds like fun, right? When choosing something at the dispensary, most employees will have sampled the cannabis they sell and can also make recommendations based on your needs. Toke up!

Is sativa or indica better for back pain?

Let’s say your back is killing you; the strain that’ll save the day is indica. CBD, in general, is a pain reliever, but indica is known to help ease pain and non-migraine headaches. A few specific strains that help soothe discomfort include:

  • OG Kush
  • ACDC
  • Uncle Andy
  • Harlequin
  • Gorilla Glue

What is the heaviest indica strain?

Part of what makes a strain strong is its THC levels. The higher the concentration, the deeper and more full-body the effects will be. A few heavy hitters include:

  • Strawberry Banana: It has a THC level of 26 percent and is known to relieve chronic pain and depression. The high eventually turns into a euphoric headspace.
  • Death Star: Like its name, it’s out of this world. It’s an indica heavy hybrid. If you’re looking for something to beat your insomnia, this is the strain for you. It has a THC level of 27 percent.
  • Ice Wreck: Ice Wreck has a THC level of 27, and users usually feel tingly sensations, sleepiness, and euphoria. It’s one of the best stress relievers.

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