Indica vs. Sativa: What Are the Differences?

Close-Up Of Marijuana

The legalization of medical marijuana has made it much easier for its sale and consumption. Nowadays, walk into any dispensary and there are a variety of "top-shelf" strains that go by many names, including Northern Lights, Girl Scout Cookies, Trainwreck, and Purple Urkle.

Much of these strains are commonly categorized into two plant species of cannabis: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. There also happens to be a third category called Cannabis ruderalis, although these plants are rarely cultivated as a drug. Sometimes, botanists may even cross-breed these species to create what is known as a hybrid.

It's commonly believed that Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica produce different effects. However, some experts argue that this stance is misleading and subjective, as the amount of the effect-inducing compounds in each individual plant can differ. This article will discuss the chemical and physical differences between these species and the effects each is said to cause.

Cannabis and Marijuana: Are They Different?

Cannabis and marijuana essentially mean the same thing. Cannabis is the term used for the hundreds of plant species commonly categorized as Cannabis sativaCannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Marijuana is a term generally used to describe cannabis plants that are high in THC.

What Is the Difference Between Indica and Sativa Plants?

The notable difference between indica plants and sativa plants is their physical traits. Sativa plants are typically larger than indica plants, with the ability to grow anywhere between five and 18 feet or more. They are thin-leaved and often have few branches.

Indica plants usually grow up to two to four feet, have broader leaves, and are compactly branched, giving them a bushier appearance.


Two notable compounds or cannabinoids in cannabis that are known to produce its effects are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These compounds affect the brain differently and can be found in either indica or sativa plants.

CBD and THC produce their effects by interacting with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS), a system discovered in the 1980s by scientists researching THC. The ECS is mainly responsible for maintaining homeostasis, or in other words, the body's ability to maintain balance in internal processes like temperature, immune responses, and mood.

THC is commonly known to produce a "high" with effects like sleepiness, euphoria, and impaired perception and movement. Studies also suggest that THC may be able to play a role in decreasing pain. It's capable of causing such effects by binding to the following cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body:

  • CB1 receptors: CB1 receptors are highly abundant in the brain. These receptors help control many brain-related processes that influence factors like learning and memory, emotion, social behaviors, and balance. These receptors are the main ones that THC binds to, producing the "high" effect.
  • CB2 receptors: CB2 receptors are abundantly found in body tissues that play roles in immune function, such as the tonsils, spleen, and thymus. These receptors help promote homeostasis in the body by regulating inflammatory and immune responses. THC does bind to these receptors, although not as much as it does with CB1 receptors.

How CBD produces its effects is less understood compared to THC. CBD is commonly known to decrease pain and inflammation, prevent seizures, and reduce symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety. But CBD does so without the "high" experienced with THC, as CBD does not bind to either of the cannabinoid receptors mentioned.

Instead, it's believed that CBD affects how THC binds with these receptors. Research reveals that it seems to decrease THC's intoxicating effects and possibly allow more positive outcomes like decreased nausea from its binding.

It's also known that CBD interacts with other non-ECS receptors, enzymes, and cellular structures that influence factors like pain and inflammation. Some even propose that there may be a third unknown receptor that CBD binds to.

THC and CBD can be found in both sativa and indica plants, but the content of each can vary in each individual plant. Typically, sativa plants produce more THC than CBD, while indica plants produce more CBD than THC.

Understanding CBD and THC Ratios

The amount of CBD and THC in a product or plant is often depicted as a ratio. The ratio of CBD to THC refers to the amount of CBD compared to the amount of THC in a given product or plant (and vice-versa if THC is indicated as the first unit of the ratio).

For example, a CBD to THC ratio of 1:1 means that there is an equal amount of CBD and THC in a given product or plant. A ratio of 15:1 means there is 15 times the amount of CBD than THC.

Different Highs

While it's commonly believed that Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica cause different "highs," experts argue that this stance is subjective. It's proposed that rather, the terms indica and sativa should only be considered as indicators of the different species when it comes to height, branching, and leaf size.

This is because any individual cannabis plant, whether referred to as an indica or sativa plant, can have varying amounts of THC, CBD, or other compounds that can contribute to the effects one may experience.

Although THC and CBD are the main compounds in Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, there are also other cannabinoids and compounds within them such as Cannabigerol (CBG) and terpenes that can contribute to effects. Research is ongoing to determine how much of an influence such substances possibly have.

You may have heard that cannabis sativa causes an uplifting and energetic feeling or "high," whereas indica plants cause more of a relaxing feeling. However, the research behind the effects or "highs" between each type of plant is limited.

Subjective results from a small Internet survey (95 research participants) put out by the Western University of Health Sciences may provide some insight on clinical differences between indicas and sativas. Here are some notable results from the survey of online marijuana users:

  • With respect to specific medical conditions, survey respondents felt that indica helped with nonmigraine headaches, neuropathy, spasticity, seizures, joint pain, and glaucoma.
  • With respect to medical conditions, survey respondents expressed sativa preference only for treating weight loss.
  • Online marijuana users expressed no difference between indicas and sativas when addressing HIV infection, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, muscle pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, trauma, orthopedic problems, and other painful conditions.
  • With respect to symptoms, respondents expressed indica preference for pain management, help with sleep, help with sedation, and a "good high."
  • With respect to symptoms, respondents expressed a sativa preference for enhancing energy.
  • Researchers concluded that indicas were preferred when treating medical conditions, whereas sativas were preferred for recreational use.

Please keep in mind that the findings presented in this survey are intended only to provide food for thought and much more research in this area is needed. Because of the lack of research, people tend to rely on the Internet, friends, or dispensary personnel to learn how a sativa or indica-based product may make them feel.

However, the effects can differ widely from one person to the next and can be influenced by factors such as dosage, tolerance, method of use, and added ingredients. The CBD to THC ratio may also matter, as research suggests that a CBD to THC ratio in which CBD is higher may reduce the intoxicating effects of THC.

One possible way of knowing if a cannabis product may cause certain effects is to know the amount of CBD and THC in the product. Generally, it's known that products that are predominant and high in THC are more likely to cause an intoxicating "high." And there's some research suggesting that high doses of solely CBD (300 to 600 mg) may cause a calming effect.

But due to the many factors that can be of influence, it's difficult to know exactly how a cannabis product may make you feel without trying it.

Cannabis Ruderalis

Cannabis ruderalis is a third categorized species of cannabis. Ruderalis plants typically don't grow over two feet and are unbranched. They're known to be autoflowering, meaning they have the ability to flower under any type of light.

Ruderalis plants are rarely grown by themselves. Instead, they're commonly cross-bred with other cannabis plants to produce hybrid plants with autoflowering capabilities. Ruderalis plants typically contain very low levels of THC2 with reportedly higher CBD levels.

Unlike ruderalis plants, sativa and indica plants are photoperiodic and typically need around 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness to flower.


A hybrid cannabis plant results from the cross-breeding or cross-pollination of two different cannabis plants. Because of this, the physical characteristics and CBD and THC levels of hybrids can vary, as the genes of its parent plants can have an influence.

Many botanists grow hybrids to produce plants that have unique characteristics. For example, a botanist may cross-breed a ruderalis plant with a CBD-predominant indica plant so that the hybrid can have autoflowering capabilities and a high CBD profile.

Side Effects

Cannabis use may cause side effects that can differ from person to person. Cannabis products that are CBD-predominant may cause side effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in appetite

Cannabis products that are THC-predominant can cause the same side effects as CBD-predominant products. But as THC specifically affects the brain, other effects can include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Altered senses
  • Impaired body movement
  • Hallucinations

Additionally, research suggests that early THC use (teenage years or younger) may affect brain development. During these years, the brain is still maturing, and THC may impair the brain's development process in regards to functions like memory, thinking, and learning.

Note that the method of cannabis use can contribute to side effects. For example, smoking cannabis may lead to respiratory problems, while orally ingesting cannabis may increase the chance of unintentional poisoning.


Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are two types of cannabis species that are proposed to cause different effects. However, experts argue that this stance is subjective, as the compound content within a plant can differ from one plant to another, regardless of if a plant is categorized as a sativa or indica plant.

Sativa plants can grow from five to 18 feet, whereas indica plants grow from two to four feet. Indica plants typically contain higher amounts of CBD than THC, while sativa plants typically have higher amounts of THC than CBD. Indica is believed to cause more of a calming or relaxing effect while sativa is known to cause an uplifting feeling.

However, effects can differ from one person to the next, and factors such as tolerance, CBD to THC ratio, method of use, and added ingredients can be of influence.

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