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Indica or Sativa? It’s Complicated

Learn what these cannabis terms mean, and other cannabis attributes you can look for to meet your healthcare needs.

A common way to categorize cannabis products is to group them as either Indica or Sativa, which is thought to give patients an overview of plant genetics and desired medical effects. While these two designations can help simplify an overwhelming marketplace, especially for those new to cannabis, using this naming convention has its flaws. Here’s what you should know about Indica and Sativa cannabis.

What is Indica Cannabis?

What is Indica Cannabis?

Hailing from the mountainous Hindu Kush region—which includes India, Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal—Indicas are described as short, bushy, broad-leafed plants with thick stems and tightly clustered flower buds. The effects of Indicas are thought to be very relaxing, colloquially referred to as “in-da-couch” for its ability to sedate.

The calming nature of Indica cannabis is sometimes wrongly attributed to CBD, or cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that can have a calming effect on the body. While CBD can be present in Indicas, Sativas and hybrids, the more likely cause of Indica’s relaxation is a dominant aromatic terpene called Myrcene. Not only has this terpene shown to relax muscles in animal studies, a recent Dutch study demonstrated Myrcene content strongly linked to cannabis associated with dominant Indica attributes. Myrcene is also thought to increase the effects of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the intoxicating cannabinoid. 

What is Sativa Cannabis?

What is Sativa Cannabis?

Thriving in warm climates, Sativa cannabis likely originated close to the equator and continues to grow wild in places like Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and across Southeast Asia. With its narrow, feathery leaves, Sativas take full advantage of sunny habitats by growing long stems on tall stalks, producing fewer flowers than an Indica. The effects from Sativa cannabis are said to be energizing and uplifting and often considered a better choice for daytime use than sedating Indicas. Some terpenes associated with Sativa-dominant cannabis are Pinene and Terpinolene—stimulating scents reminiscent of a pine forest—and beta-Caryophyllene, the same aroma found in black pepper.

While major cannabinoids CBD and THC have been found to be nearly identical among Indicas and Sativas, minor cannabinoids CBG (cannabigerol) and CBC (cannabichromene) were found to be higher in varieties of Sativa cannabis, according to a recent study. The third-most prevalent cannabinoid (after CBD and THC), CBG is non-intoxicating and thought to have pain-relieving effects. The more rare CBC has anti-inflammatory and potential antidepressant effects.

Medical CannabisMedical Cannabis

What is Hybrid Cannabis?

What is Hybrid Cannabis?

A blend of both Indica and Sativa, Hybrid cannabis makes up most of the products available today. This is because over the last 50 years in North America, cannabis has been crossbred and hybridized to encourage different effects, most notably THC for the commercial market. Because of this, hybrid strains are often marketed as Indica-dominant or Sativa-dominant, encouraging people to think of them as one or the other. However, patients should keep in mind products with dominant traits are still hybrids, and should not rely on feeling fully relaxed or fully energized according to Indica or Sativa descriptions. Any mixed strain has an element of the unknown due to the intricate way cannabis compounds work together, along with the unique influence a strain’s chemical synergy can have on the individual patient. With hundreds of hybrid strains on the market, each one has potentially different therapeutic effects.

Where did the names Indica and Sativa come from?

Where did the names Indica and Sativa come from?

In the late 18th century, French botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck continued the work of his Western predecessors who classified European hemp—which they called Cannabis sativa—as a domesticated species. After cannabis samples from India were sent to Lamarck, he decided they were an entirely different wild cannabis species based on the shape of their leaves, stems, and flower buds. In his 1785 edition of Encyclopédie méthodique, Lamarck enters C. sativa under Chanvre cultivé (cultivated hemp) and C. indica under Chanvre des Indes (Indian cannabis, or Cannabis Indica).  

Jean BaptisteJean Baptiste

While Lamarck noted C. indica’s short, firm stems made it less useful for fibres, he pointed out the consumption of this new species caused “drunkenness” and “makes one forget one’s sorrows”. The debate over whether Indica is a separate species or just a subspecies of the Cannabis sativa plant, was tossed around by both botanical scientists and medical physicians alike for decades and remains controversial today. The 19th century saw the word “Indica” used to describe cannabis in a medical context to delineate it from domesticated hemp (today’s hemp is defined as having less than 0.3% THC, but still falls under the term Cannabis sativa). Later, fears over cannabis as a narcotic and potential social threat resulted in 20th-century prohibition which halted most studies of the plant. In North America, prohibition-era lawyers utilized the term “Indica” in an attempt to side-step illegal “Cannabis Sativa” and keep their clients out of jail. At the same time, growers on the illicit market capitalized on the term Indica which,
rightly or wrongly, still loosely held meaning as delivering a more potent intoxicating effect.

Today’s medical patients are left with little more information than Lamarck had published centuries ago—that Indicas are supposedly relaxing, and Sativas less so. While scientists continue to uncover the complexities of cannabis and its potential medical applications, they’re finding very little difference between the THC and CBD levels of Indicas and Sativas. However, classifying cannabis in a new way that resonates with patients—and reaches a consensus among scientists—remains as difficult today as it was 200 years ago. This is why we still see the ubiquitous terms Indica and Sativa. 

Why are the terms Indica and Sativa less reliable for patient outcomes?

Why are the terms Indica and Sativa less reliable for patient outcomes?

Fundamentally, most cannabis strains available to patients today are the result of decades of cross-breeding and hybridization. These blends of Indica and Sativa genetics can potentially deliver effects a patient did not anticipate. For example, relying on Indica-dominant strains for evening use may not be as sedating as one had hoped; conversely, selecting Sativa-dominant strains in the daytime could potentially make one drowsy.

Even if a product claims pure Indica or Sativa origins, there are flaws in guessing therapeutic effects based on a plant’s height, branch structure, and leaf shape. Like most living plants, cannabis responds to its immediate environment, and as such its growth is impacted by factors such as temperature, light, and soil conditions. Studies have shown cannabinoid differences  among plants within the same strain that grew under different environmental conditions, and even geographical locations. Put another way, a strain grown in Alberta may have different cannabinoid ratios—thus different effects on a patient—than the same strain grown in New Brunswick.

The other case to consider is what’s known as the entourage effect, in which cannabis compounds work synergistically together, like musical instruments in an orchestra. The cannabinoid and terpene combinations from strain to strain each play a different melody, so to speak, and experts believe these combinations are more indicative of therapeutic effect than Indica or Sativa origins. In other words, an Indica-dominant strain could potentially have a similar therapeutic outcome as a Sativa-dominant strain if the cannabinoids,terpenes, and other plant compounds, such as flavonoids, are closely matched.

Alternative ways to classify medical cannabis

Alternative ways to classify medical cannabis

A different approach for patients is to consider the chemical profile of a given cannabis strain or product and to match those profiles with their unique therapeutic needs. Here are some of the ways to interpret cannabis outside Indica and Sativa designations:

Cannabinoids: With THC and CBD ratios readily listed on product labels, this is the easiest way to determine effects. For example, a higher percentage of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC might be better suited to evening use, while during the daytime a higher ratio of non-intoxicating CBD could be a better choice—all depending on the symptoms you’re trying to manage and the direction given by your healthcare provider. As researchers uncover more about cannabinoids that occur in smaller quantities, such as CBG and CBC, quantities or ratios of these may also be helpful for patients to look for in the future. Keep in mind, no cannabis compound works in isolation, and a cannabis-trained healthcare provider or pharmacist can help you navigate the complexities of cannabis.

Cannabis plantCannabis plant

Terpenes: It’s often assumed that THC or CBD cause the distinct tastes and smells of a given cannabis strain, but cannabinoids are odourless. Terpenes are pungent chemical compounds produced by the frosty-looking trichomes that blanket cannabis flowers. Terpenes are  found in most of the world’s plants, and cannabis produces several hundred that range in smell from sweet to skunky. What’s significant about terpenes for patients is the strength and combination of these compounds may be more responsible for the therapeutic effects of cannabis than even the cannabinoids THC or CBD. While research on terpenes is still in early stages, scientists think cannabinoids may work to help terpenes cross the blood-brain barrier, making them significant players in medical cannabis. If cannabis strains or genetic origins feel more significant to you as a patient, consider that terpenes are inheritable traits not influenced by environment or geography[CT20]. Unlike cannabinoids, which can be inconsistent, terpenes are relatively unaffected by environmental factors. This may be why another recent study suggested flavour perception could be a more reliable marker of a strain’s effects than even cannabinoids.

Among the hundreds produced by cannabis, a handful of terpenes tend to dominate most cultivars. Here are some of the most common:

  • Myrcene: Also found in hops in mango, myrcene is a musky, almost
    skunk-like odour thought to have sedating and pain-relieving effects.

  • Limonene: A sharp, sour smell also present in citrus rind that can
    elevate mood.

  • Beta-Caryophyllene: Also found in black pepper and clove,
    beta-caryophyllene may have anti-inflammatory properties.  

  • Pinene: The same scent produced by pine trees, this stimulating
    terpene is thought to be anti-inflammatory and a possible bronchodilator.

  • Linalool: Strongly associated with lavender, this floral terpene is
    known to be calming and may reduce anxiety and stress.

But again, noticing the right terpene for you on a label, or listed as a characteristic of a certain strain, doesn’t mean it will work in isolation. Compounds in cannabis work together as a therapeutic whole. Lastly, the current research on terpenes is focused on inhalation, not ingestion. If edibles, softgels or oils are your go-to methods for medication, there isn’t yet scientific evidence that ingested terpenes have the same effects on the body as they do when inhaled. 

What about strain names?

What about strain names?

As diverse as they are often creative, cannabis strain names may sometimes help
patients figure out the lineage of a product. However, unlike other agricultural industries where there are strict laws around naming conventions, such as wine grapes, cannabis growers are free to name their products whatever they want. Additionally, breeders can hybridize cannabis many times over to create one-of-a-kind varieties, possibly placing a strain’s dominant traits into recession, and vice-versa. Because names are left up to producers and processors, they do not guarantee a plant’s true genetic identity. Returning to cannabinoid ratios, and terpene breakdowns where available may be a more reliable way to predict therapeutic effects for patients.

Similar to some pain medications or antidepressants, treatment with cannabis may
require a period of trial-and-error as you and your healthcare provider find the right product to manage your symptoms. Our Medical Cannabis by Shoppers™ team is trained in medical cannabis and can help you navigate the complexities of cannabis therapy. Any questions, reach out to our qualified professionals at any point.