Cannabis Indica vs. Sativa: What Are the Differences?

Comparing the two main species of medical marijuana plants

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Despite a myriad of special names for medical marijuana you can find at a dispensary—Northern Lights, Blueberry, Sour Diesel, and many more—much of these strains can be categorized into just two main species of cannabis plant: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa.

Close-Up Of Marijuana
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It's commonly believed that Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica produce different effects. While there is some basis for generalization, some experts argue that this stance is misleading because the amount of the effect-inducing compounds in each individual plant can differ.

This article discusses the chemical and physical differences between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica and the effects each is said to have.

Is Cannabis the Same As Marijuana?

Cannabis is the term used for the hundreds of plant species commonly categorized as Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis (a type rarely cultivated in the U.S.) Marijuana is a term generally used to describe cannabis that is used recreationally, although "medical marijuana" is a widely accepted term for the use of cannabis for health reasons.

Physical Appearance

You can immediately notice a difference between the indica plants and sativa plants just by looking at them.

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

Cannabis indica

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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.

Cannabis sativa

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Composition

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two compounds known to produce the effects of cannabis. These compounds, called cannabinoids, affect the brain differently.

CBD and THC work by interacting with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is mainly responsible for maintaining homeostasis—the body's ability to maintain balance in internal processes like temperature, immune responses, and mood.

THC and CBD can be found in both sativa and indica plants. Though the content of each can vary in every individual plant, sativa plants typically produce more THC than CBD, while indica plants usually make more CBD than THC.

Still, some experts propose that the terms indica and sativa only be considered as indicators of the different species when it comes to height, branching, and leaf size—not effects, since THC and CBD amounts within a plant species are not standard.

CBD-to-THC Ratios

The amount of CBD and THC in a product or plant is often depicted as a ratio, or a comparison of the amount of one to that of the other. 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 CBD-to-THC ratio of 15:1 means there is 15 times the amount of CBD than THC.

How They Work in the Body

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 are the main receptors 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. 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 CBD seems to decrease THC's intoxicating effects and possibly allow more positive outcomes like decreased nausea.

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.

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

How They Make You Feel

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 this 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.

Keep in mind that the findings presented in this survey are intended only to provide food for thought. 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.

Whatever you may hear, 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. 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 milligrams) 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.

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 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.

How They Compare to Cannabis Ruderalis

Cannabis ruderalis, the third categorized species of cannabis, typically doesn't grow over two feet and is unbranched.

These plants are known to be autoflowering, meaning they have the ability to flower under any type of light. In contrast, sativa and indica plants are photoperiodic and typically need around 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness to flower.

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 THC with reportedly higher CBD levels.

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.

What Is a Cannabis Hybrid?

A hybrid cannabis plant is one created from the cross-breeding or cross-pollination of two different cannabis plants. The physical characteristics and CBD and THC levels of hybrids can vary depending on the parent plants.

Summary

Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are two types of cannabis species that are proposed to cause different effects. However, the compounds within a plant can differ from others—even if two plants are the same type. That means the effects can differ too.

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.

Factors such as tolerance, CBD-to-THC ratio, method of use, and added ingredients can influence effects as well.

A Word From Verywell

If someone gives you advice on the effects of a sativa or indica based cannabis product, know that their advice may be from their own experience or what someone may have told them. The effects of any cannabis product depend on different factors and can vary from one person to another.

If you are interested in a product that's marketed as being of the species sativa or indica, try getting specific data on its ingredients and the amount of CBD and THC within it for a possible idea of what effects you may experience.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, is a medical writer and editor covering new treatments and trending health news.