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Differences Between Sativa and Indica Cannabis Strains

Updated November 25, 2022

As you explore the various cannabis strains, you will notice that they are usually labeled as indica or sativa. These are the two main categories of cannabis, and there are some differences between the two, whether you are looking at medical or recreational cannabis.

The Quick Difference

Most people agree that indica strains tend to deliver deep relaxation throughout the body. By contrast, sativa strains typically provide more energization. This is just a general rule of thumb, but the differences go much deeper than this. Additionally, it is crucial to keep in mind that every strain is different and will produce varying reactions.

Comparing the Plants


Although there are exceptions to the rule, most indica cannabis plants will have broad leaves and be short and bushy. They tend to produce a higher yield compared to sativa plants and grow faster as well.

Indica strains are native in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. The plants have readily adapted to overcome the dry, harsh, and turbulent weather in the Hindu Kush mountains.


By contrast, indica cannabis strains tend to grow thin and tall, featuring narrow leaves. Tall is not an understatement when it comes to sativa, as some plants can grow over 12 feet. They tend to be lighter green compared to indica plants. Growing indica strains will typically require additional light and take more time for growth and maturity.

Sativa is most common in dry, hot climates that have long days with plenty of sunlight. As such, many of the sativa strains originate from Central America, Africa, western Asia, and Southeast Asia.

Concentrations of THC and CBD

Indica strains tend to produce higher CBD concentrations and lower THC concentrations. By contrast, sativa tends to have higher THC concentrations with lower CBD concentrations.

History of the Terms

Interestingly, the use of the terms indica and sativa to describe cannabis strains have evolved over the years. The narrow-leafed cannabis plants that we call sativa today were first called Cannabis indica ssp. Indica. The broad-leafed plants that we currently call indica were first called and technically remained Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica. The term Cannabis sativa originally referred to what we now call hemp. This is the non-intoxicating and industrial type of cannabis commonly used for seeds and fiber, and now for CBD.

Ideal Time of Day for Use

Because of its energizing effects on most people, the typical cannabis sativa strain will be ideal to consume during the day. This will give the user the energy they need to tackle their tasks. The relaxation effects associated with indica cannabis strains makes it ideal for consumption at night, including right before bed.

Comparing the Typical Effects of Each

Indica and sativa strains overlap in terms of how they affect the user, but there are also many variations.


Indica strains can help with muscle relaxation, mental relaxation, nausea, and decreasing acute pain. These also enhances appetite and increases dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter that helps with the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.

Overall, the effects of indica tend to focus on relaxation. It can also help with pain and nausea reducing as well as increasing appetite.


Sativa strains increase the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps with regulating appetite, sleep, mood, learning, and anxiety. These strains can also help fight anxiety and depression, increase creativity and focus, and treat chronic pain.

Overall, most sativa strains are associated with creativity and productivity.

Example Strains

Most cannabis strains will not have the word indica or sativa in their name, although they will likely be in their scientific names. Some of the most common sativa strains include Durban Poison, Panama Red, and 3 Kings. Some popular strains of indica include Hindu Kush, Bubba Kush, and Afghan Kush.

What Are Hybrid Strains?

In addition to cannabis and indica strains, you may come across hybrid strains. These will have some combination of the two, sometimes in a ratio of 1-to-1, sometimes not. 1-to-1 ratio, or those close to it, are called balanced hybrids. You can also have sativa-dominant (sativa-dom) or indica-dominant (indica-dom) strains. Most hybrids are grown with a specific goal in mind, typically effects or possibly concentrations of THC and CBD.

Where They Grow

Hybrids tend to be grown in greenhouses or on farms, as the result of someone combining various indica and sativa strains. The appearance of the plant will combine the features of indica and sativa strains, with the side it resembles most depending on the influence of each parent plant.

CBD and THC Content

The content of CBD and THC in a hybrid cannabis strain will depend entirely on the strain and its parentage. It is common to find hybrids with high THC percentages, but this is not always the case. Many combinations were created to maximize THC content.


As with everything else regarding hybrid strains, the grower who develops the strain will likely do so with specific effects in mind. These may be easing symptoms of radiation or chemotherapy, reducing stress and anxiety, stimulating appetite, reducing pain, or general relaxation.

Because the effects will vary based on specific hybrid strain, so will the best time of the day to use it. If it is more energizing, you should use it during the day. If the strain is more relaxing, use it at night.


Some of the more common hybrid strains you may come across include Blue Dream, Trainwreck, and Pineapple Express.

What About Ruderalis Strains?

There is also another strain of cannabis known as ruderalis. You will not frequently find it used by those who consume cannabis and are less likely to see it in your dispensary. This is due to the strain’s reduced potency in terms of effects compared to sativa and indica. It still does not hurt to learn about this strain.

Where Ruderalis Grows

Cannabis ruderalis plants are highly adapted to grow in extreme environments. As such, it grows in Russia, Siberia, India’s Himalayan regions, and Eastern Europe. Its adaptation to harsh environments also includes fast growth, even in low-sunlight and cold areas.

Appearance and Growth

Ruderalis cannabis plants tend to be small and bushy, rarely getting larger than 12 inches. However, they grow incredibly quickly, sometimes requiring just over a month to start as a seed and reach the point of harvesting.


As mentioned, ruderalis cannabis plants tend to have minimal THC. It has more CBD than THC, but the concentrations are still not necessarily enough to deliver any of the effects people expect from cannabis.

Almost No Effects

It is rare to find someone using ruderalis cannabis recreationally or medically. This comes from its low potency that results in a lack of effects. The lack of effects means that you can use ruderalis at any time of the day that you want.

It Can Be Part of Hybrids

Although ruderalis is not commonly grown because of its low potency, cannabis growers appreciate its fast growth. As such, some growers will breed ruderalis with indica, sativa, or hybrid strains. The idea is to produce the hardiness and rapid growth of ruderalis into the other strains.

Strain Designation May Not Matter

Despite everyone seeming to categorize cannabis as either indica or sativa, many experts argue that the designation does not make a difference. Early research indicates that there are no significant differences between the effects of indica and sativa, despite their reputations. Instead, the variation comes down to the specific strain. Those who say that the classification is meaningless, other than in terms of plant appearance and growth speed, argue that the thought that sativas energize while indicas relax comes down to expectations. Our expectations may influence the effects of cannabis.

Look at Cannabinoids and Terpenes Instead

Those who make this point say that you should instead focus on the cannabinoids and terpenes found in a particular strain. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) helps relieve nausea, pain, and other symptoms. It also provides a “high” feeling and promotes hunger. CBD (cannabidiol) is non-intoxicating and can relieve medical ailments, including inflammation, pain, and anxiety.

Terpenes are the aromatic compounds found in cannabis, as well as other fruit and plants. Terpenes account for the smell and flavor of a strain as well as its effects, although experts are still unsure how terpene creates the impact that it does.

Similar Potential Side Effects

Although there are minimal risks associated with using cannabis, there are still some potential side effects. These tend to be the same whether you use indica, sativa, or a hybrid strain. Possible unwanted effects include dry eyes, dry mouth, anxiety, dizziness, lethargy, paranoia, increased heart rate, and decreased blood pressure. Most of these effects come from the cannabinoids present in cannabis.

If you choose to vape or smoke your cannabis, there may also be side effects related to lung and airway irritation. Those side effects can mean respiratory problems or coughing.

Choosing Between Indica and Sativa (Picking Your Strain)

There is not a one-size-fits-all cannabis strain that will work for everyone in each situation. To choose which variety to use, you should start by selecting between indica and sativa, or electing to look for a hybrid. From there, you can further narrow down your options and choose a strain. As you make a decision, keep a few key considerations in mind.

Your Goals

Start by thinking about what you want to achieve with your cannabis consumption. Is there a specific condition you want to treat? Or, do you want to relax or boost your energy levels?

Your Tolerance and Experience

Everyone reacts differently to cannabis, so what is a safe dose of THC or CBD for some people may be too much for others. First-time cannabis users should avoid strains that have high potencies. Instead, opt for a breed with mild, tolerable effects. Pineapple Express is commonly recommended for beginners.

Your Medical History

Before you start using cannabis, don't forget to consider how it interacts with any other medications you take or your medical history. The THC, CBD, and other compounds in cannabis can react poorly with certain medications or conditions. As such, it is always wise to consult your doctor before you start using cannabis.

Consider Alternate Consumption Methods

While most people think about smoking cannabis, this is no longer the only option. You can also buy gummies, edibles, or capsules produced using cannabis. Some of these will only include general information regarding THC and CBD content, while other products may indicate which strain they come from. At the very least, they are likely to show whether the product comes from sativa or indica or its likely effects, although this is not always the case.

Consult Your Dispensary

Assuming you live in an area where cannabis is legal and have easy access to a local dispensary, consider visiting it for professional help choosing which strain to use. The people working at the dispensary should be knowledgeable about the various strains they have there and which situations they work best in.


There is no difference in legality between cannabis sativa and indica. Both will be legal if you live somewhere that cannabis is legal, and both will be illegal if you live somewhere where it is not permissible. The only type of cannabis plant that would be possibly legal is hemp, but this is used for industrial purposes and is not consumed like cannabis.

The Bottom Line

Sativa strains of cannabis tend to grow tall and have narrow leaves, while indica varieties are shorter with broader leaves. Most people associate sativa strains with energization and indica strains with relaxation. This is potentially true to some extent, but the effects you feel will depend on the variety, and some sativa strains may relax while some indica strains may energize. You can also find hybrid cannabis strains that combine indica and sativa strains.

When choosing which cannabis strain to use, you will want to consider the effects that you wish to from marijuana, as well as your desired content of THC and CBD. If you are unsure about selecting the right strain, discuss your needs with the team at your local dispensary.

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