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Sativa vs indica: the difference in popular strains

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Sativa vs indica can be an easy differentiation: one is often used to help with sleep while the other is used for creativity.

Jump to: What are they? | Differences | Sativa vs indica chart | Sativa deep dive | Indica deep dive | Risks and side effects | Edibles | Smoking | List of conditions | Summary | Frequently asked questions

Having basic knowledge of cannabis becomes more and more important as states across America delve into legalization. At the time of writing this, 20 US states and territories have legalized recreational marijuana:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Guam
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Washington, D.C.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at the two most popular strains: indica and sativa. The guide also contains a breakdown for the differences and similarities, the types of chemical compounds they have, and the types of conditions you can use each to help with.

What is sativa and indica?

Cannabis is a genus of the Cannabaceae family of plants. Why does this matter if you’re really only interested in effects and comparison of sativa and indica? Well, there’s been some debate about the total number of species within the genus of Cannabis, but wit’s generally accepted that the three main species are: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. The debate stems from the fact that some scientists include ruderalis as a subspecies of sativa.

Despite the debate on the total number of species, it’s widely accepted that the genus of Cannabis is native to Asia. You may also be familiar with another name for the plant (behind weed and marijuana), it can also be referred to as hemp. However, the term “hemp” is colloquially used to refer to non-drug use cases like textiles in the form of clothing, rugs, and other use cases for fabrics. Hemp seeds and their oil are also a common form of ingested cannabis with no drug-like side effects.

In the United States, a cannabis product can be classified as “industrial hemp” if it contains less than 0.3 percent of the chemical THC by weight.

Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids can exist naturally in plants or be created synthetically in a lab. They’re chemical compounds font most commonly in the cannabis plant and is most famous for the compound tetrahydrocannabinol – typically referred to as “THC”. At the time of publishing, over 110 cannabinoids had been isolated from cannabis plants and the chemicals had been found in other plants as wide-ranging as licorice, liverwort, and rhododendrons.

It’s estimated 48.2 million people (18 percent of Americans) used a cannabis product at least once in 2019.

Centers for Disease Control

Instead of listing out the full range of cannabinoids, many of which are still being studied and understood, here are some of the most common and best-studied:

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

Known in scientific terms as tetrahydrocannabinol (the most-commonly used is Delta-9-THC), THC is widely known as the primary driver of intoxication from the ingestion of cannabis and cannabis products. THC is a lipid, which means it’s in a fat/oil form. Scientists believe THC was developed by the cannabis plant as as a form of protection against being eaten by insects and as an armor against ultraviolet light damage.

THC is one of three cannabinoids listed by the United Nations (after recommendations form the World Health Organization) s a narcotic drug. That said, a pharmaceutical form of THC called dronabinol has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States for conditions related to chemotherapy and AIDS.

The psychoactive effects of THC are the focus of recreational users as well as those looking to uphold the illegality of the substance. In 1964, chemist Raphael Mechoulam found that THC was absorbed into the bloodstream when smoked and traveled to receptors in the brain. Those receptors were located in areas which controlled coordination, movement, thinking, memory, and pleasure.

Can you overdose?

While a commonly-searched term around THC is whether or not you can die from a weed overdose, a study in 1972 showed lethal dosage in dogs, monkeys, and rats to be near impossible. In the study, a lethal dosage in rats was found to be 3600mg of THC per kilogram of rat. In a human, this would be more than half a pound of pure THC. Standard dosage of THC per edible gummy is 10mg, which would be the equivalent of needing to eat 29,454 gummies to overdose.

On a purple background, pastel-colored cannabis gummy bears are mingled with a small, green sativa leaf and a number of sativa cannabis buds of varying sizes.
It’s estimated a human would have to eat over 25,000 weed gummies to near a THC overdose.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

Is typically the second-most referred to chemical in a Cannabis plant. It was first discovered in 1940 and generally makes up about 40 percent of a cannabis plant’s extract. A 2019 clinical research study on CBD found insufficient evidence that CBD had a positive impact on anxiety, movement disorders, and pain conditions, but it is still widely accepted by the public as a useful tool in managing them.

In the United States, depending on local laws, you can often find CBD for sale legally. It can be used via smoke or vapor (e-cigarettes), topically in oils, salves, and gels, or orally through oils and extracts.

CBD doesn’t have the same intoxicating psychoactive effect as THC, which is why it’s widely accepted for legalization long before THC-containing products.

Cannabinol (CBN)

Unlike CBD, cannabinol is a psychoactive and is found in trace amounts in cannabis. It was the first compound to be isolated from cannabis, back in the late 1800s. In contrast to THC, CBN is not listed as a psychotropic by the United Nations but is in the United States.

The difference between sativa and indica

It’s very common for those with less experience with cannabis to break sativa and indica comparisons into the types of benefits from each species. However, as more and more breeds and strains develop, you can get very similar effects from very different varieties. If you are a beginner, though, you can use this sativa vs indica chart as a rough guide for what to expect.

Sativa vs indica chart

A sativa vs indica chart. Sativa looks taller with skinny trees and has long-slim fingers on its leaves. Its buds are also narrower and more compact. The affects is has are a head high that helps you feel cognitive, alert, euphoric, and uplifted. It's often used to feel creative and energetic. Indica grows shorter, wider trees with short, wider fingers on its leaves. Its buds are wider and bushier and have a body high effect that makes you feel relaxed and helps stimulate appetite. Indica is commonly used to relieve pain and help you sleep.
A breakdown chat of the indica and sativa species of cannabis. Sativa has taller, skinny trees and has an energetic, euphoric effect. Indica has shorter, wider trees with a relaxed effect.

Everything you need to know about sativa

Sativa is one of the two most-common breeds of the cannabis plant. These taller, skinny trees are sought after for their “head” high effects – leaving users feeling alert and euphoric, often uplifted and inspired. It has narrow, compact buds and can be easily spotted with it’s leaves having longer, slimmer fingers and a lighter-green color than indica.

Sativa’s origin

The sativa breed of cannabis grows better in warmer, tropical climates, making it much more natural to grow in Eastern Asia. It was first classified in western culture in 1753 by Carl Lannaeus and its name translates to “things that are cultivated”.

How to spot sativa bud

A hand holds a single sativa cannabis bud - it is narrow and tidy, about the size of a thumb. The color is a slightly-graying forest green.
The sativa bud is tidy, narrow, and compact. The size can vary, but this example is about the size of a human thumb.

While it takes a tuned eye to spot the difference between sativa and indica buds, they’re a little easier to spot if they’re side-by-side.

Typically, the sativa cannabis bud is more compact and narrow than the indica bud. Recently-harvested, it’ll have a graying forest green color which will lean brown as it ages and dries. You can describe buds from sativa plants as both ‘tidy’ and ‘neat’ as they will typically keep their bodies more closely-knit than the oft-rambunctious indica.

This all aids in remembering the visual differences between the two primary cannabis strains: sativa is a tall and narrow tree with long and narrow fingers on its leaves and narrower buds, while indica is a shorter and wider plant with wider and stubbier leaves and ultimately shorter and wider, more-rambunctious buds when it comes time to harvest.

Sativa effects

For those who use cannabis products often, sativa derivatives are typically sought after for their energizing and creativity-boosting effects. The high given by the typical chemical makeup of the plant’s buds is described as a cerebral “head high” – one which makes its users feel they have their wits about them, are cognitive and alert, and heave peak clarity into their five senses. This is the preferred strain for many musicians, painters, artists, writers, and the like.

Using sativa during the day or night

Because sativa products are typically energizing, it’s recommended the use of sativa is kept to those who prefer not to sleep in the near future. While it is possible to sleep after consuming sativa products, it isn’t the type of cannabis which induces or helps sleep in the way indica does.

Most popular sativa strains

There are countless sativa strains out there on the market, but some of the most common you’ll be able to find in areas where THC-inclusive cannabis products are legal are:

  • Sour Diesel
  • Jack Herer
  • Mango Haze
  • Lilac Diesel
  • Limelight
  • Durban Poison

Everything you need to know about indica

The indica species of cannabis is the shorter and thicker-growing variant with (typically) significantly-higher levels of euphoria-inducing THC.

Indica’s origin

The earliest known reference to the indica species of cannabis was made by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785, which he had named Cannabis indica. The origin is as simple as him being in India when he collected the species. As scientists worked to re-trace Lamarck’s steps to find the true region of origin, they found short, broad-leafed plants matching his description in the Hindu Kush mountain range area between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.

How to spot indica bud and flower

An indica bud is a cannabis bud which comes from a plant producing wider and less-compact buds than their sativa counterparts. This one is almost modular, with light brown and gray-green spots across it's almost bush-like body.
The indica bud is bulky and somewhat loose when compared to sativa.

Indica plants are shorter and grow wider and less-compact than sativa, often appearing more like a bush than a young tree or sapling.

The fact that indica was likely found in more mountainous regions lends itself to being more bush-like than tree-like as lower oxygen environments invite shorter flora. They’re also less likely to grow in warmer climates, often thriving more in cool, temperate zones closer to the elevations where they’re natively found.

Their leaves are bolder, more broad, and a darker-green color.

Much like how squat and broad its plants grow, the buds coming form the indica species of cannabis are wider, more-round, and untidy than their sativa counterparts.

CBD to THC ratio of indica

THC is abundant naturally in indica species of cannabis. While selective breeding and alterations over time (and variances in climate and soil) can have a significant impact on the THC content of any cannabis plant, THC is often more dominant in a CBD to THC ratio in indica plants than in sativa plants.

Indica effects

Because of its higher THC levels, indica products are often more useful for their medical properties than sativa products. They can be useful for fighting chronic pain, helping as a sleep aid, and are commonly prescribed by doctors for treatment of appetite loss and to help those undergoing chemotherapy treatment to consume additional calories.

Using indica during the day or night

Because of its drowsiness-inducing effect, indica strains of cannabis are the perfect fit for nighttime use, and is frequently sought after as a part of a bedtime ritual. Yes, indica is the species you’ll want if you’re looking for a sleep aid or anything to help with anxiety and stress.

Most popular indica strains

Indica strains are a favorite for those looking for a relaxing, smooth, sleep-provoking effect. Some of the most common strains are:

  • Forbidden fruit
  • Blueberry kush
  • Northern lights
  • Hindu kush
  • Granddaddy purple (GDP)

An important note on risks and side effects

It should go without saying that, while legalized in some form in 20 states and territories, use of high-THC products remains illegal in the majority of US states and where it is legal, is limited to use by those either 18 years of age or older than 21.

Federally, the use of marijuana is still considered illegal, though the federal government will not currently enforce that law in individual states except on federal property in places like airports and government buildings.

It’s estimated over 30% of high school seniors have used a cannabis product in the last year.

The 2021 Monitoring the Future Survey

There are some common risks associated with the use of cannabis products, though most are prevalent in smoked, vaped, or otherwise inhaled forms of ingestion, such as cancer and the development of heart problems.

Possible risks in both edible and inhaled products include:

Addiction

Two major studies have been conducted on cannabis usage and dependency. The first study showed that 30 percent of marijuana users developed an addiction or dependency. The second study showed a ten-percent likelihood of addiction. Common signs of developing a dependency is increasing dosage, trying to quit but failing, spending increasing time using, having cravings for cannabis products, and continuing use despite social or relationship problems stemming from your use.

Poisoning

Poisoning is much more common in places where cannabis products are not legalized, as no regulation exists to ensure the purity and correct dosage of products. Where legalization exists, there has been a prominent noted issue with existing regulation, which tracks the total volume of cannabinoids like THC within a batch of a product and does not guarantee the exact measurement of an individual dose. For example, if a batch of weed brownies has 120mg of THC and makes 12 brownies, it’s assumed by regulators to have 10mg of THC per brownie. The reality is that a poor mix could cause one brownie to have 60mg of THC and the rest of the brownies to each have significantly less than 10mg. This results in significant variances in the effects from one dosage to another and from one product to another.

Driving impairment

Much like alcohol and opioids, marijuana causes impaired judgment and results in significant increase in the likelihood of traffic accidents. In states where cannabis products have been legalized, it is very common for police officers to be prepared with blood test kits to test intoxication in drivers showing signs of cannabis use. Impairment caused by cannabis use includes slowed reaction time and decision-making, coordination issues, and distorted perception of things like speed and distance. Studies have shown driving impairment exists regardless of cannabis species, as some dependent users argue the “alert” effect of sativa species can help them drive. This is proven to not be true.

Pregnancy

You shouldn’t use cannabis products in any form while pregnant. Studies have shown it can effect a baby’s development and put the mother at risk of a long list of complications in carrying the baby to term.

Using indica and sativa

Sativa vs indica edibles

Edibles are considered to be one of the safest and most user-friendly ways to ingest both indica and sativa. However, because edibles take a while for your body to digest, there are some very important ways you should go about eating them to make sure you have a pleasant and safe experience:

Edible dosage

It’s hard for a first-time user to know the right dosage for their first edible experience. The standard THC dosage of 10mg per edible can be very strong for someone who has not experienced the effects before. For that reason, it’s recommended you consume 5mg or less for your first experience. If you have a 10mg gummy or baked good, simply cut it in half.

Edible timing

A common “beginner’s mistake” is to take an edible and, after a short period, consume more when you’re not feeling its effects. The reality is that edibles can take as long as two hours to kick-in. If you are a first-time or relatively-new user, set a timer for two hours and have an honest internal discussion with yourself about whether you’re feeling effects or not. Do this before consuming the second half of your edible. The impaired judgment caused by consumption of cannabis products can result in you feeling like you’re not experiencing your dosage, even while you are. This includes losing track of time and thinking a much-larger amount of time has passed, hence the timer.

Indica vs sativa bud for smoking

While consuming cannabis products in an edible form only introduces users to the risks of contaminated or poorly-measured ingredients, science has been very clear about the nearly-immediate health risks of inhaling both smoked and vaped substances.

E-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) can cause permanent, irreversible and near-immediate damage after only a few uses. Vaping takes advantage of the oil-based properties of cannabis products and human lungs are not built to process and do away with the excess lipids which accumulate when the vaporized oils accumulate over time.

For that reason, WODDITY will never recommend the inhalation of any cannabis product and notes that consumption of edibles is done at your own risk.

Strains to use for specific conditions

Strains for pain and chronic pain

Chronic pain can be caused by a number of conditions, whether injuries or inflammatory diseases like endometriosis, fibromyalgia, pinched nerves, and more. Some of the commonly-suggested cannabis strains for chronic pain are:

  • Acapulco Gold
  • Afghan Kush
  • Blue Dream
  • Bubba Kush
  • LA Confidential
  • Northern Lights
  • Pineapple Express
  • Purple Kush
  • Sour Diesel

Insomnia

Acute and chronic insomnia plagues an estimated 70 million Americans every year. It’s a disorder in which you have trouble either falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. A number of common cannabis strains have been recommended to use by those struggling with insomnia. Those are:

  • Afghan Kush
  • Blue Dream
  • Bubba Kush
  • Granddaddy Purple
  • Northern Lights
  • Purple Kush

Mental fog

Mental fog is a blanket term used to describe when someone feels their brain isn’t working as well as it can. This could be a decrease in the ability to focus or concentrate, poor memory performance, lower alertness levels, and troubles with word retrieval. Some cannabis strains suggested for mental fog are:

  • Blue Dream
  • Golden Goat
  • Pineapple Express
  • Sour Diesel
  • Super Silver Haze
  • White Widow

Fatigue

Fatigue is considered to be a condition of feeling constantly tired or weak, whether physical, mental, or both. A study in Australia found nearly 1.5 million Australians seek help about fatigue each year. A few strains have been recommended for fatigue:

  • Acapulco Gold
  • Golden Goat
  • Maui Waui
  • Sour Diesel
  • Super Silver Haze

Depression, low mood and mood disorders

There are a wide range of disorders associated with depression, low mood and general mood disorders. While cannabis products may help alleviate some symptoms, it’s highly recommended you seek help from a doctor as soon as you can. The most effective management of depression happens in a combination of counseling, prescribed antidepressants, sleep, exercise, nutrition, and healthy social situations.

  • Golden Goat
  • Maui Waui
  • Norther Lights
  • Supernatural
  • White Widow

Anxiety

Anxiety can be described as sweating, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, and feeling tense caused by a feeling of dread, fear, and uneasiness. Many people face anxiety in the face of making an important decision or while working through a difficult problem like taking a test or big milestones and events at work. For this, some weed strains being recommended are:

  • Golden Goat
  • Pineapple Express
  • Sour Diesel
  • Super Silver Haze
  • White Widow

Stress

Stress is on the rise, whether brought on by increasing social tensions around politics and world geopolitical drama, workplace tension and demands, social media, or many more causes. It’s the general feeling of physical and emotional tension. Some of the cannabis strains recommended for those trying to alleviate stress are:

  • Acapulco Gold
  • LA Confidential
  • Sour Diesel
  • Super Silver Haze

Low appetite and eating disorders

Loss of appetite can be caused by a number of things from stress and anxiety to depression, along with medical conditions and treatments like cancer and chemotherapy. Cannabis products have a history of being prescribed to increase appetite and some of the more-common strains recommended are:

  • Afghan Kush
  • Bubba Kush
  • Granddaddy Purple
  • Northern Lights

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is triggered by terrifying events and can be caused by both witness and experiencing them. It’s a mental health condition which similar circumstances can trigger flashbacks, severe anxiety, and nightmares. Three strains have been recommended to help with PTSD symptoms and to help with the uncontrollable thoughts:

  • Blue Dream
  • Bubba Kush
  • Sour Diesel

Nausea

Nausea is defined as a feeling of sickness with an inclination to vomit. It can be caused by anything from infections like stomach flus, foot poisoning, motion sickness, concussions, and migraines. Acapulco Gold and Bubba Kush are both recommended cannabis strains to help fight nausea.

Inflammation

Inflammation is a condition caused by blood rushing to an area to fight off an infection or injury. It often involves the area becoming red, swollen, warm, and painful. Some chronic conditions like endometriosis and fibromyalgia are the results of rampant inflammation. Both Blue Dream and LA Confidential cannabis strains are recommended to help with pain associated with inflammation.

Cramps

Cramps caused by dehydration, menstrual cramps, and others can often be reasonably alleviated with a cannabis strain like Blue Dream.

Headaches and migraines

Many users of the Supernatural strain of cannabis have recommended it to help with headaches and migraines.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS)

Many people suffer from a condition called Restless legs syndrome (RLS) in which they frequently feel the need to move their legs to prevent an uncomfortable sensation, typically in the evening o nighttime when sitting or lying down. Moving alleviates the sensation temporarily. Sometimes Granddaddy Purple has been recommended as a cannabis strain to help with the discomfort.

Muscle spasms

Painful contractions and tightening of the muscles (often referred to as muscle spasms) are common, involuntary, and unpredictable. In the past, users of Purple Kush say it’s a great cannabis strain for combating muscle spasms, especially after long or extra-taxing workouts to help muscles relax and recovery.

Summary: indica vs sativa

We just went through a huge list of deep information on cannabis, the sativa and indica species, common uses, expected effects, and more. If there are only a few things we hope you take away from all this information, it’s that there’s no perfect “sativa vs. indica” answer except that it depends on the use cases, goals, and specific strains you’re looking for and at. Use sativa strains generally if you’re looking for creativity and energy and use indica strains if you’re looking for more medical-related solutions like help with chronic pain, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

Frequently asked questions

Is indica or sativa better?

It depends on what your goal is. If you’re looking for help with sleep, anxiety, and chronic pain, you’ll find indica to be a better fit for your needs. Sativa, on the other hand, is generally going to be better for creativity and the sharpness of thought coming from a “head” high.

What does indica do to you?

Indica is the species of cannabis most associated with sleepiness and “munchies”. It’s commonly used more for medicinal uses – fighting nausea, increasing appetite, helping with chronic pain and inflammation, and assisting with insomnia.

Does indica make you sleepy or hyper?

Indica is the strain you want if you’re looking for a “sleepy” effect.

Is indica a downer?

Indica is a downer, commonly used to fight anxiety and stress and help those looking for a sleep aid.

What does sativa do to you?

Sativa is considered to give a “head” high – one which increases energy and creativity for those looking to get inspired, be productive, and create.

Does sativa make you sleepy or hyper?

While still technically a downer, sativa is the species of cannabis more likely to give you more energy than it takes away. If you’re looking for a sleepy effect, you’ll generally want to lean toward indica products.

Is sativa a downer?

Sativa, as a cannabis species, is technically a downer but is more-commonly associated with being the more-energizing as its high is more in the head and often helps with creativity and inspiration.

What’s the difference between indica and sativa?

Indica and sativa have some easy visual differences: Indica is a shorter and wider bush with fatter buds and shorter, wider fingers on its leaves. Sativa is taller and narrower trees with skinnier buds and longer, skinnier fingers on its lighter-green leaves.

When it comes to their effects, indica is commonly associated with sleepiness and help with common conditions like insomnia, anxiety, and loss of appetite. Sativa is more-commonly associated with inspiration, creativity, and invigoration.

What is indica?

Indica was the second discovered cannabis species and is native to the middle east Hindu Kush region. It grows shorter and wider than its sativa counterpart and is typically used medicinally due to its higher THC ratio.

What is sativa?

Sativa was the first documented species of cannabis. It is more tree-like with thinner and taller leaves. Its buds are narrower and the lower-THC ratio causes more of a head high which induces energetic creativity and inspiration.

Sources

Ben Garves
Ben Garveshttps://www.woddityhealth.com/
Ben is a digital media entrepreneur, elite fitness analyst, activist, and CrossFit Level 1 coach. He founded WODDITY in 2017, making tools and resources for the CrossFit Community. You can find his content all over the internet, including contributions to BarBend.com, his blog at BenGarves.com, YouTube, and the Ben Garves Podcast.

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