Sativa vs Indica vs Hybrid - the differences

February 12, 2021

How do Sativa vs Indica vs Hybrid strains differ?

Though the original strains of cannabis were relatively few now there are over a thousand marijuana strains that have been bred. It is important that cannabis users know the difference between sativa and indica subspecies.


When buying cannabis (or hemp flower) – one of the most important questions in determining choice is the question of the desired effect and dispensaries and delivery all split products into one of these three and often the first question a budtender may ask is which of the three the patient or user is looking for.


The most basic differences are considered to be as follows:

  • Indica strains are sedating – so they’re better for sleep
  • Sativa strains are energising – so they’re better for daytime
  • Hybrid strains are somewhere in between indica and sativa


Indica vs. Sativa: A deeper dive

The Cannabis plant is a flowering herb that is split into two or three subspecies, these being Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis. Ruderalis is considered by some a potentially different species which does not produce much in the area of cannabinoids and the medicinal qualities are therefore lacking – so we will concentrate on the indica and sativa strains.


So let’s start by listing the physical and physiological differences between the Indica and Sativa marijuana strains and then we will discuss what a hybrid is.


Physical difference between Indica and Sativa Plants

Indica plants are distinguished by producing shorter and bushier plants with leaves that are shorter and wider also. They tend to have shorter flowering cycles and do better in colder climates.


Sativa plants on the other hand are taller and slimmer and their leaves are longer and thinner/pointed also. They tend to have longer flowering cycles and as such do better in warmer  climates.

Physiological difference between Indica and Sativa Plants

The medical and physiological effects of these two subspecies is what is of most interest to users with most important difference between these two subspecies of cannabis being the kind of ‘high” they give and the different influences on the mind of the patient including users energy levels and productivity


Indica plants tend to cause more relaxation and can therefore be more beneficial in helping to fall and stay asleep.  Additionally they are believed to be better for pain relief. In terms of appetite indica dominant plants also are more stimulative – causing the sensation of hunger and the ensuing “munchies” which is a property that patients with wasting diseases, cancer or AIDS may be looking for.


Sativa plants on the other hand are more stimulative than relaxing and give more of a head “high” and a feeling of alertness and euphoria – as well as a higher sense of creativity. As such the flower of sativa dominant plants to be considered good for daytime and allowing for more creativity.

Hybrid Weed Strains

The reality is that it is rare to find a strain that can be said to have descended from either a pure indica or sativa lineage as most strains today are the product of generations of cross-breeding and as such most strains are actually hybrids..

How valid are the differences in reality?

Though commonly viewed as such by cannabis culture the reality is more complex. Though the physical differences can be good for cannabis growers to differentiate between plants – when analysis of the chemical composition of these plants is taken into account there is no clear pattern that would indicate that the terpene and cannabinoid profiles of the two subspecies effects are in actuality that different.


Cannabis is a very complex plant with over 100 cannabinoids identified and together with terpenes and other chemicals – these can interact in different ways so that for example the effects of a plant with a similar THC or CBD profile may be completely different based on the “Entourage Effect” of the other cannabinoids that interact with the receptors in the endocannabinoid system.

This is further complicated that the way in which the plant is grown (indoor, outdoor, temperature, light levels, nutrients etc.) can have a major effect on the chemical composition of otherwise genetically identical plants – and even different parts of the same plant may have significant differences.


Additionally the same plant may have different effects on different people so while the general trends may have some validity – in practical terms and also in terms of chemical composition – the differences do not hold up well to further investigation. In fact a users unique biology, tolerance as well as the dosage and consumption method can cause differing results.


So we can say that indica, sativa and hybrid – though commonly used – are not particularly predictive of expected effects.


What can help predict the effects of weed if not the subspecies?

It’s not easy as the factors above indicate. It’s further complicated that growers may call completely different products by the same name – though they are different.


We have to get more scientific about it if we are going to be able to better predict how an individual may


With over hundreds of possible cannabinoids and terpenes – and as the major chemical compounds in cannabis they are the most influential in determining the effects in addition to the unique biology of the user.


The two most  abundant cannabinoids in weed are THC and CBD.


Like THC and CBD (the two most common) are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.

  • THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) makes us feel hungry and high, and relieves symptoms like pain and nausea.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound known to alleviate anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other medical ailments.


A list of major cannabinoids in cannabis and their effects

Cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids, but start by familiarizing yourself with THC and CBD first. Instead of choosing a strain based on its indica or sativa classification, consider basing your selection on these three buckets instead:

  • THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side affects associated with THC, try a strain with higher levels of CBD.
  • CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needed clear-headed symptom relief.
  • Balanced THC/CBD strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis signature high.


It’s worth noting that both indica and sativa strains exhibit theses different cannabinoid profiles.  “Initially most people thought higher CBD levels caused sedation, and that CBD was more prevalent in indica cultivars, which we now know is most definitely not the case,” Raber told Leafly.


If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in lavender flowers, oranges, hops, pepper, and of course, cannabis. Secreted by the same glands that ooze THC and CBD, terpenes are what make cannabis smell like berries, citrus, pine, fuel, etc.


One question yet to be answered by research is how terpenes- and different combinations of those terpenes – shape the effects of different cannabis strains.


“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects,” Raber said. “Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids.”


There are many types of terpenes found in cannabis, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the most common terpenes—especially myrcenecaryophyllenelimonene, and terpinolene, since they’re the most likely to occur in pronounced levels in cannabis.


Three sativas in the Cannabis Guide, all with very different cannabinoid and terpene profiles, meaning each will likely give different effects.


If you can, smell the cannabis strains you’re considering for purchase. Find the aromas that stand out to you and give them a try. In time, your intuition and knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes will guide you to your favorite strains and products.

Biology, dosing and consumption method of cannabis

Lastly, consider the following questions when choosing the right strain or product for you.

  • How much experience do you have with cannabis? If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses.
  • Are you susceptible to anxiety or other side effects of THC? If so, try a strain high in CBD.
  • Do you want the effects to last a long time? If you do, consider edibles (starting with a low dose). Conversely, if you seek a short-term experience, use inhalation methods or a tincture.


There are many factors to consider when choosing a strain, but if you find that indica strains consistently deliver a positive experience, then by all means, stick to what you know. However, if you’re still searching for that ideal strain, these are important details to keep in mind.


Terpenes in indica, sativa, and hybrid strains

We know that terpenes are responsible for the different aromas found in cannabis and that, according to early research, they may deliver unique therapeutic effects. But to what extent do they make a strain energizing or sedating? And are there patterns that could explain why indicas and sativas sometimes feel different?


Let’s take a look at lab data illustrating terepne trends among indicas, sativas, and hybrids


Above, you’ll find the levels at which indica, sativa, and hybrid strains tend to produce common terpenes. They tend to present relatively similar patterns in terpene profiles with some interesting points of variation—one of which is terpinolene.


Terpinolene is a terpene found at high levels in only a small subset of cannabis strains, most of which are sativas and hybrids. Some terpinolene-dominant strains you’ve probably seen or heard of include Dutch Treat, Jack Herer, Golden Goat, and Ghost Train Haze. You’ll find terpinolene in many strains related to these, like Jack crosses (e.g., XJ-13, J1, Chernobyl) or Golden Goat hybrids (e.g., Golden Pineapple, Golden Ticket), indicating that there may be genetic consistency.


Still, a majority of sativa strains are not terpinolene-dominant. But if you’ve tried terpinolene-dominant strains in the past, you’ll have likely noticed they’re similar in effect. What this suggests is that strains with similar cannabinoid and terpene combinations may offer more reliable consistency in effects. Terpene profiles also allow us to deepen our understanding of potential variations within each cannabis type. Let’s take three hybrid strains for example—ACDCChernobyl, and OG Kush.


Although each categorically identify as “hybrids,” they’re vastly different strains on a chemical level. ACDC is a gentle CBD strain commonly chosen by those who are sensitive to THC and its anxious side effects. Chernobyl is a blissful and uplifting strain that is preferred by many for daytime activities. OG Kush delivers a heavy-handed punch of euphoria that is commonly chosen by seasoned smokers or reserved for evening sessions.

By going a step beyond their indica, sativa, or hybrid classification to consider cannabinoids and terpenes, you’re more likely to identify the specific strains you like or don’t like.

Indica and sativa: Origin and evolution of the terms

The words “indica” and “sativa” were introduced in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The term sativa described hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia, where it was cultivated for its fiber and seeds. Cannabis indica refers to the psychoactive varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

Although the cannabis varieties we consume largely stem from Cannabis indica, both terms are used—even if erroneously—to organize the thousands of strains circulating the market today.


Here’s how terms have shifted since their earliest botanical definitions:

  • “sativa” refers to tall, narrow-leaf varieties of cannabis, thought to induce energizing effects. However, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) varieties were originally Cannabis indica ssp. indica.
  • “indica” has come to describe stout, broad-leaf plants, thought to deliver sedating effects. These broad-leaf drug (BLD) varieties are technically Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.
  • “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.


With the mass commercialization of cannabis, the taxonomical distinctions between cannabis species and subspecies got turned on its head and calcified. But now that you understand that there’s more to a strain than its indica, sativa, or hybrid designation, it’s worth thinking about how to shop for the right strain on your next dispensary visit.

How to shop for cannabis without saying ‘indica’ or ‘sativa’

What’s important to you as a cannabis consumer shopping for a specific mood has everything to do with potency, dose, and chemical profile (i.e., cannabinoids and terpenes). That’s the beauty of the Leafly Cannabis Guide – it allows you to easily identify which strains are chemically similar, so you have a better chance of finding (or avoiding) particular chemical profiles.


Let’s say you’re prone to anxiety and looking to avoid an uncomfortable, racy experience. If you tell a budtender you hate sativas because they make you anxious, they may hand you a THC powerhouse like White Fire OG simply because it’s not a sativa. Meanwhile, a “sativa” like Harlequin—with low levels of THC and high levels of CBD—might actually be a better fit.


Although it isn’t as simple as grouping strains into the indica-sativa-hybrid triumvirate that has long been our compass while navigating menus, try using potency to guide you. You may find that a strain packing 25% THC isn’t as enjoyable as that very fragrant strain tapping in at 16%, or the balanced THC/CBD variety that provides 10% of each cannabinoid.


You might also find that you gravitate toward strains that express similar terpene profiles. For example, if you like the terpinolene-dominant Jack Herer, you’ll likely enjoy Golden Pineapple or XJ-13, which are also terpinolene-dominant. Finding the right strain for you requires a bit of trial and error. Still, if you’re new to cannabis, there are appropriate places to begin your search for that perfect experience.

Medical Efficacy

The most important difference between these two subspecies of cannabis, however, is in their medical effects and how they influence energy levels and productivity. Indicas tend to decrease energy and are better for consumption in the evening or at night, after the conclusion of the day’s work and activities. Potent indica strains may give some patients what is called “couchlock,” a condition in which they become so relaxed that they care barely get up from the sofa.


Sativas, on the other hand, are uplifting and cerebral, enhancing creativity and productivity. Indicas provide what has been called a “body high,” while sativas deliver more of a “mind high.” Unfortunately, sativa plants require longer to grow and yield less medicine (flowers) than indica varieties. This is why indica strains have traditionally dominated those available on the black market, where there is no concern for patient need and the sole focus is profit.


The fact that patients are given no choice of subspecies or strain when purchasing from the black market is a major reason it should be avoided. Patients should never trust or consume cannabis medicine without knowing its exact strain and that it was properly grown, dried, cured, and laboratory tested for purity and potential contamination.


Modern cultivators of medical cannabis purposefully breed and grow a wide spectrum of strains within both the indica and sativa categories for the purpose of making available the right medicine for a particular patient’s unique combination of disease, preference, and lifestyle. Often, patients must maintain jobs or family responsibilities that demand a particular energy level and can’t tolerate the sedative properties of many indicas. Other times, patients must seek the most potent non-opiate painkiller possible. Given the choice of chronic pain or the mellowing effects of a strong indica of a particular strain known for its medical benefits, most patients will choose the latter.


Because cultivators and dispensaries are sensitive to the subjective efficacy of particular strains for different patients, they grow and make available as many strains as possible for targeted ailments. Major conditions of focus include HIV/AIDS, cancer, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, Parkinson’s, all types of arthritis, and epilepsy, among many others.


In terms of particular ailments, sativa strains tend to be better for psychological disorders like depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Indicas are often the best for pain and inflammation and, thus, are beneficial for patients with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and cancer. However, because so many diseases are accompanied by side effects like depression and insomnia, a patient must consider treating both their core disease and also its daily symptoms. In the end, each patient will favor multiple strains that will likely fall within the categories of sativa, hybrid, and indica.


When it comes to aroma, indica strains tend to emit musty, earthy, and skunky odors, while sativas smell sweet, fruity, or spicy. This difference in aroma is the result of terpenes, the molecules within the plant that are cousins to cannabinoids like THC and CBD. While these chemicals provide sometimes stunningly pungent odors, their greatest benefit to patients is actually their medicinal efficacy.

Understanding Hybrids

Hybrids are simply new and unique strains that are bred from parents of different types. A hybrid theoretically possesses many or most of the beneficial medical properties of both its parents. Breeders can “cross” any two strains they desire in an effort to create a new strain that delivers the best possible medical efficacy, sometimes for particular diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and epilepsy.


It should be noted that any two strains can be mixed to create a hybrid. While indica/sativa mixes are common and often noted for their “alert mellowness” and productivity, medical cannabis breeders can also mix indicas with other indicas or use two sativas as parents.


With so many hybrid strains available to patients, many are a compromise that possess the ability to kill pain and fight inflammation while not putting a patient to sleep in the middle of the day. Patients who must medicate in the morning or mid-day, typically for nausea and pain, often prefer a sativa-dominant hybrid, but will switch to an indica-dom strain in the evenings and for maximum pain relief.


Hybrid strains that display more indica than sativa traits are labeled “indica-dom,” while those that lean toward sativa are similarly dubbed “sativa-dom.” Often, strains are labeled with a sativa/indica ratio, like a 60/40 sativa/indica. Other times a strain will indicate only a percentage, such as “70 percent indica” or “80 percent sativa”.

Landrace Strains & Heirlooms

Landrace strains are those that evolved naturally within their native environments. Because they weren’t bred and aren’t hybrids, landrace strains offer a very pure example of sativa or indica, with no interference from humans. In fact, landrace strains are typically 100 percent indica or sativa, the result of tens of thousands of years of inbreeding in a particular weather climate and geography.


Heirlooms are landrace strains that have been grown outside of their native environment, such as plants or seeds professionally grown in Illinois that originated on the other side of the world. While sought for their pure indica or sativa characteristics, such strains lose some of their unique characteristics when grown outside the climate in which they evolved.


Examples of landrace strains include Durban Poison, a sativa from South Africa; Afghan Indica, from Afghanistan; Malawi Gold, a sativa from Southeastern Africa; and Panama Red, a sativa from the country that bears its name.


Landrace sativas appear in Asia, Anatolia, and Northern Africa. These climates provide the long summers and intense sun in which such strains have evolved and adapted to thrive. Indicas are located in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Such strains will not reach their potential if grown within indoor or outdoor conditions that don’t match those of their native environment.


Eastern Europe, the Himalayan region of India, and Siberia are home to ruderalis landrace strains and are among the least desired of these naturally evolved plants. Often, as in the Himalayas, such plants are used to create traditional hand-rolled hash, with impoverished villagers in such regions subsisting on black market sales of the concentrate that eventually appears in smoking cafes throughout Europe.

What Determines Sativa or Indica?

Readers have already learned that the sometimes pungent aromas produced by many strains of cannabis are the result of terpenes, the special molecules in the herb that are similar in many respects to cannabinoids like THC and CBD.


While many might guess that a particular strain of cannabis is categorized as indica, sativa, or hybrid based on the presence or absence of a particular cannabinoid, or a cannabinoid in a particular volume, it is actually a terpene that determines this important status of a strain.


Myrcene, the most common terpene in cannabis, is known to help patients sleep, battling conditions like anxiety and insomnia. If present in a specific strain in a volume greater than 0.5 percent, the strain is considered an indica. If the amount of myrcene is under one half of one percent, then the strain is deemed a sativa.


This dynamic is a good example of the entourage effect, a theory that cannabinoids and terpenes work together in harmony to deliver medicinal efficacy to patients. Many terpenes buffer or enhance the effects of major cannabinoids like THC.

New Strains Constantly Being Created

New strains of cannabis, many of which are hybrids of existing strains that display exceptional analgesic (pain killing) or anti-inflammatory qualities, are being created on a regular basis. While some strains are better at dealing with the nausea associated with chemotherapy (used to treat patients with cancer and Crohn’s, among other diseases), most types of cannabis are very good at this.


With such dramatic differences between indicas and sativas in terms of medicinal efficacy and the experience of the patient, those legally using medical cannabis should work with their physician and dispensary to experiment with various strains that are already known to deliver exceptional benefits to other sufferers, especially those with the same condition.


Patients must strive to find the strains that best deal with their particular disease or ailment and its symptoms, including the side effects of any pharmaceutical drugs or therapies. This is typically not an overnight project and may require months or even years of diligent effort. In fact, patients are encouraged to continually experiment with new strains in search of greater potency or a superior cannabinoid profile that delivers improved relief.


Because this efficacy is so subjective, the advice of other patients can be given only so much weight. The true test of a particular strain of indica or sativa occurs only when used by an individual patient when they most need it, such as during bouts of pain, nausea, or insomnia.