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Medical Marijuana: Indica vs. Sativa

indica vs sativa

If you’re new to the world of cannabis, even setting foot inside a dispensary can seem like an overwhelming thought. You’ll see boards listing all manner of strange names you’ve likely never seen or heard of before.

Much like wine is available in red, white and blends of both, marijuana comes in three basic types: Indica, Sativa and hybrids. Each differently named variety is called a strain and falls under one of these three categories. Again, like wine, weed comes in an array of types, each with its unique high, chemical makeup and flavor profile.

These strains have names like ACDC, Confidential Cheese, Champagne Kush, Cannalope Haze and Barry White, to name a few. And yet, all the varieties — from Northern Lights to Strawberry Cough and Jack Herer — originate from just two species of plants: Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa.

You could take a guess as to what the effects of the various marijuana strains could be, judging by the names alone. For instance, strains with the word "haze" in the names are typically predominantly Sativa, while strains with "kush" are mostly Indica.

However, you're better off finding out the difference between the two primary species of marijuana, Indica and Sativa, to narrow down your preferred strain for your needs.

marijuana strains

The effects of marijuana can vary widely depending on which subspecies, or strain, you use to treat yourself. As each major strain of cannabis has its own effects on your mind and body as well as different medicinal benefits, it’s crucial to know what you’re buying and using in advance. That way, you can find the strain that’s right for you and your specific needs.

Here, we’ll take a look at Indica vs. Sativa, what each species is, their very different properties and how to choose the right species to suit your medical needs.

THC and CBD

Before discussing in detail what Indica and Sativa strains are and the similarities and differences between the two, you should understand what cannabinoids are. Specifically, THC and CBD. If you've used weed before or are researching marijuana, it's likely you've already heard of cannabinoids.

There are more than 85 cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant. Arguably, the best-known is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). It’s the primary psychoactive compound of the plant.

CBD (cannabidiol) is probably slightly less familiar than THC. CBD is more frequently researched, since it’s non-psychoactive. It’s also the substance responsible for many of the medicinal and therapeutic properties associated with medical pot.

When you’re taking medical marijuana, the effects it provides you is the most crucial element. And, it’s the chemical makeup of each species of marijuana that you need to focus on to achieve the feeling you’re seeking. Sativa strains usually contain higher levels of CBD to THC, according to a study published in the American Journal of Botany. Indica strains usually have more THC to CBD.

sativa vs indica

There can be variance between strains that make this general rule less than 100% reliable. For example, you can sometimes find Indica strains that contain more CBD than some Sativas. There are also Sativa strains with much higher THC levels than Indica strains. This is why it’s helpful to focus on the general effects of each species rather than solely on their chemical properties.

THC and CBD are a unique class of compounds called cannabinoids. The medical community is excited about CBD, as it’s known to have many therapeutic benefits.

thc and cbd

There are at least four notable differences between the THC and CBD that relate to their effects on:

  1. Sleep: Marijuana has long been used as a sleep aid. CBD in the plant produces the majority of pot’s sleep-enhancing effects. Studies suggest THC is useful for keeping you awake and alert, so strains high in this compound are best taken during the day.
  2. Antipsychotic experience: As well as being non-psychoactive, CBD seems to be antipsychotic, too. Research shows CBD may stop pot users from getting too high by actively dampening the psychosis-like effects of THC. Furthermore, this finding can be used in the future for other applications. For example, CBD is being tested for use as an antipsychotic medication for people suffering from schizophrenia.
  3. Anxiety: THC can make some people feel paranoid or anxious. CBD creates the opposite effect and can counteract any THC-induced anxiety. Many people also use CBD medicinally to reduce general anxiety.
  4. The high: While THC is psychoactive and give you a “high” feeling, CBD is non-psychoactive, so it doesn’t make you feel “high.” This is just one of the reasons why CBD-rich strains of pot are so appealing to medical marijuana users.

Cannabinoid Receptors

Cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2, are part of the endocannabinoid system and play several vital roles within our bodies. They’re found in the liver, lymphatic system, kidneys, nerve tissue and your spleen.

  • CB1 Receptors: Found primarily in the nervous system and the brain but also in other places, CB1 is the primary receptor for THC and anandamide, one of the naturally occurring cannabinoids within your body. The activation of these receptors by THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
  • CB2 Receptors: These are located primarily in your immune system and are responsible for balancing the anti-inflammatory effects of pot. Inflammation is a major factor in a variety of illnesses, and it’s CB2 that acts as an immune response.

These CB1 and CB2 receptors are crucial to your blood formation and immune system. The endocannabinoid system is also responsible for the enjoyment and pleasure you gain from exercise.  They also control your:

  • Neuroendocrine response
  • Anxiety response
  • Motor behavior response
  • Sensory response
  • Cognition response
  • Autonomic response
  • Memory response
  • Insulin resistance
  • Metabolism
  • Inflammatory effects
  • Vomiting reflex
  • Appetite
  • Hunger
  • Nausea

After you smoke, vaporize, or ingest cannabis and cannabinoids flood your body, these CB1 and CB2 receptors are unlocked, providing you with relief from dozens of conditions involving pain, nausea and more.

Similarities and Differences Between Indica and Sativa

The plant species Cannabis Sativa L. has two main sub-species used for medicinal purposes: Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa. While legally, there is no difference between Sativa and Indica, there are many differences between the Sativa-dominant and Indica-dominant cannabis strains. Both terms are used to speak about broad categories that show where a strain lies in the cannabis spectrum.

Before going into the details of Indica and Sativa, the below table provides you with at-a-glance information to understand the main differences between the two strains:

indica and sativa
Origin-wise, Indicas come from the Indian subcontinent and central Asia, whereas Sativas come from equatorial regions like Mexico, Jamaica and Thailand. The two different types are different in appearance.

Indicas have a flowering period of between 45 and 65 days. Sativas need between 60 to 90 days to finish flowering. Sativas require less time for the actual plants to grow, so the overall time required for both plants works out similarly.

Although Indicas can rapidly grow once they begin to flower, they tend not to grow out of control, usually producing heavier yields than Sativas. In comparison, Sativas quickly grow in height once they begin to flower. They can continue to shoot up as much as 200 or 300 percent during this period.

Indicas are used to give you a "stoned" effect that is centered on your body. They may also enhance your physical perceptions like taste, sound and touch. If you need to relax mentally and physically, Indica makes a better fit than Sativa.

Contrastingly, Sativas produce a "high" effect. This makes you feel creative, cerebral, giggly and energetic. Some people may feel psychedelic effects, too. Sativa sensations are less overpowering than those of Indica.

Taste-wise, Indicas are usually sweet and sometimes fruity, while Sativas are earthy.

What Is Indica?

A strain of cannabis known for having sedative full-body effects, Indica is the preferred choice when you want to relax or to sleep better at night. Medically speaking, if you’re in a lot of pain, suffer from anxiety or have muscle spasms, Cannabis Indica enables you to be more restful so you can recuperate.

indica strain

Appearance wise, Indica is bushy and short and is, therefore, more suitable for growing indoors. It’s found in geographical areas of between 30 and 50 degrees’ latitude and has buds that are heavy, dense and tightly packed. Indicas contain naturally high levels of CBD and are therefore extremely potent. Popular Indica strains include:

  • White Rhino
  • Master Kush
  • G-13
  • Northern Lights
  • Granddaddy Purple

What Does Indica Treat Best?

Since Indicas produce an intense and relaxing full-body experience, they’re often used to relieve sleeping disorders, body pain and general anxiety. Indica has the following benefits:

  • Relieves body pain
  • Relieves spasms
  • Reduces seizures
  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Relaxes muscles

Medical pot patients usually take Indica before bedtime so they can have uninterrupted sleep. Indica is also used for treating nausea, lupus, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.

Side Effects of Indica

As Indica marijuana strains have rather heavy sedating effects, they can make you feel more stoned than high. You may feel you’re sedated when taking it and should never ingest Indica when you need to be alert. Although they offer a significant physical high that’s useful for battling pain, Indica strains can have depressive qualities and may make you feel unmotivated. If you suffer from low mood or depression, speak to a knowledgeable budtender before buying.

indica high

When you take Indica, it's similar to ingesting a sleeping pill. It also gives you a strong desire to eat. Fragrance-wise, Indicas have a heavy and distinct odor. Their buds are narrower, longer and less tightly packed than those of the Sativa strain.

Pure Strains of Sativa

Pure Sativa strains include:

  • Panama Red: As the name suggests, this strain comes from Panama and has been popular since the 1960s. It provides you with a happy and euphoric effect and is often used by people to cope with stress, fatigue and depression.
  • Thai: As you might imagine, Thai comes from Thailand. It arrived in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s. This strain has a powerful effect and boasts a citrus aroma. Medicinally, it’s used for treating stress, depression and fatigue, as it gives you a very focused, happy and relaxed feeling.
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian is a tropical fruit-fragranced strain that gives you a happy and relaxed feeling. It’s very useful if you suffer from stress or depression.

What Is Sativa?

Sativa marijuana strains tend to be more invigorating than Indicas. People sometimes use these when they want to be more creative, socialize and be physically active. If you're using marijuana medically, Cannabis Sativa is a suitable choice for daytime use if you suffer from depression, mood disorders, ADD or fatigue.

sativa benefits

Sativa is thin and tall in appearance and is well-suited to growing outdoors. It’s found in geographical areas of between 0 and 30 degrees latitude. Some Sativa strains have a similar effect on you as drinking strong coffee. Usually, Sativas have a lighter aroma than Indicas. Popular Sativa strains include:

  • White Widow
  • Sour Diesel
  • Blue Dream
  • Silver Haze
  • Jack Herer

What Does Sativa Treat Best?

As Sativa gives you a far more energetic, uplifting and cerebral high than Indica, it's best to use it during the day. When you take this strain, it makes you feel energetic and creative. For this reason, it’s often used by different kinds of artists. The benefits of Sativa include:

  • Provides you with feelings of extreme well-being.
  • Makes you feel at ease.
  • Fights depression.
  • Makes you think cerebral and uplifting thoughts.
  • Energizes you.
  • Stimulates you.
  • Increases your creativity and focus.

Sativa is often used to treat behavioral and mental issues such as ADHD and depression. Like Indica, it stimulates hunger, which makes it very useful if you have been diagnosed with certain forms of cancer, anorexia or HIV/AIDS.

Side-Effects of Sativa

Although Sativas are useful when you need an energy boost, they can make you feel "high." Also, some users may experience panic attacks, paranoia and anxiety when taking a Sativa strain. These should be avoided if you have social anxiety.

Pure Strains of Sativa

Completely pure Indica strains include:

  • Ketama: Ketama is a Sativa that comes from Northern Morocco. It’s resistant to plagues and pests. The plant has large buds and boasts strong THC levels that provide a very relaxing effect.
  • Afghani: Another pure strain that’s heavy in Indica, Afghani gets its name from its geographical origin. It’s believed that the very earliest cannabis varieties were grown in the Afghanistan region. Afghani has an earthy and sweet smell and provides you with a deeply relaxing sedative effect along with a euphoric feeling. Many medical marijuana users take this strain to treat stress disorders, pain and insomnia.
  • Hindu Kush: This pure Indica strain is named after the 500-mile-long mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it originated. Hindu Kush is easily recognizable by its sweet, subtle and earthy sandalwood aroma. This strain gives you a feeling of complete calm and is used by people suffering from stress disorders, nausea and pain.

What Is a Hybrid?

When discussing Indica and Sativa, we'd be remiss if we didn't explain hybrids.

As you might expect, hybrids are somewhere in the middle of the Indica-Sativa spectrum. Their exact effects are dependent on the traits they inherit from their parent strains. Hybrid strains are often bred to fuse what growers believe to be the best aspects of both plants.

hybrid strains

Hybrids and crossbreeds of Indica and Sativa strains produce varieties that carry some characteristics of each parent. For example, adding Sativa to Indica strains adds mental clarity and decreases sedative effects. And adding Indica to Sativa strains can reduce or even eliminate the Sativa tendency to stimulate anxiety. Common strains include OG Kush, Himalayan Gold, Blue Cross, 00 Diesel and Kandy Kush.

Hybrids are often referred to based on the dominant subspecies inherited from their lineage — for example, pure Indica, mostly Indica, mostly Sativa or pure Sativa. Instead of using pure Indica or pure Sativa, many patients can benefit from the use of hybrid strains. There is a vast number of strains available for patients, each with a different cannabinoid profile and effect.

These classifications have been in use since the differences in resin production and structure were first discovered in the early 18th century. The hybrid category was adopted later, as cannabis growers began mixing plants from varying places all over the world.

Which Strain Is Right for Me?

A lot of the fun involved with using cannabis is finding out what you like personally. Don’t be afraid to ask your marijuana doctor or budtender questions or to experiment with new varieties. There is a strain available to suit everyone, whether you’re using the plant for medical or recreational purposes. In a sense, this can be very much a process of trial and error.

sativa vs indica

Perhaps rather than focusing on the different effects of each species, you could try strains with various ratios of CBD to THC. Remember: if you’re using the plant medicinally, CBD is a known therapeutic.

Considerations on Dosage, Strains and Forms

It’s a good idea to experiment with different systems of delivery. The way you take pot can provide different effects. If you’re wondering if you should inhale or ingest pot, consider the following:

  • Know that edibles are harder to dose: If you’re making your own edibles or purchasing professionally made ones, they can be difficult to dose. Bear in mind that there is a delay in ingestion and the onset of effects, so you should never overestimate the dose. When you inhale weed, it gives you an immediate reaction so you can gradually dose as needed.
  • Understand that edibles are healthier for you than smoking: If you don’t enjoy smoking or are worried about the negative health implications, eating marijuana may suit you. Vaping is another healthier way to take in the plant. Edibles can bring you long-lasting relief if you’re in pain and they’re easy to take with you, so they’re often the preferred choice for medicinal use.
  • Be cognizant of duration and effects: When you’re experimenting with edibles, be patient and take less than you think you’ll need. These can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to kick in and the effects can last for several hours.
  • Be aware of inconsistencies in advertised strength: When you buy edibles, one batch may be different in strength from the last one you tried. Additionally, in unregulated markets, the potency of an edible may not match its label, providing you with a further reason to always be cautious when ingesting edibles, as the effects may be stronger than you initially anticipate.
  • Know how THC is absorbed. Your liver metabolizes the THC when you eat cannabis, which provides you with a more intense high. When you vape or smoke weed, the THC goes straight to your brain, which explains why this method of delivery gives faster results.

Marijuana Statistics

A commonly used but illegal drug, cannabis is undergoing a positive public image renaissance due to its many medicinal benefits. As well as already being legal in many states, there are corporations currently investing considerable resources in cannabinoid development and research. Take a look at these pot-related statistics for more information:

weed arrest statistics

Speak to a Marijuana Doctor or Search for a Dispensary

Medical research into Indicas and Sativas is still in its infancy. What we know right now is just the tip of the iceberg. With cannabis being legalized in so many states and countries all over the world, we’re seeing the beginning of a new and exciting journey for everyone involved.

If you’re in doubt about which strain might suit your needs, search for a marijuana doctor or an experienced budtender at a dispensary using our directory. They’ll be able to answer your questions and can point you in the right direction for products that can help you. The most important points to keep in mind are the significant differences between each strain and how you feel they could be useful in helping your find relief from your condition.

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This information is not provided by medical professionals and is intended only to complement, and not to replace or contradict, any health or medical advice or information provided by healthcare professionals.  If you have any questions, please contact your doctor or other healthcare professional.