Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: Understanding the differences

Discover the difference between cannabis strains and the benefits of each. 

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: understanding the differences
minute read

Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are often understood as two separate species of cannabis—but this may not necessarily be the case.* Over time, these two species are thought to have hybridized, and some researchers suspect that much of the cannabis grown and consumed today is a mix of both.

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into cannabis strains—including Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and hybrid cannabis.

What are cannabis strains?

Cannabis strains are subtypes of a species, similar to a breed. They’re different types of the same plant, and some people may significantly prefer ones effects over the other. 

Blueberry and Haze, for example, work differently, but they’re both cannabis. They can be bred together (to make the beloved hybrid strain Blue Dream) to balance the strongest traits. Someone might find that Blueberry is a better fit for their needs than Haze, or vice versa. 

There is technically the potential for a nearly unlimited amount of cannabis strains. Currently, there are about 700 distinctly recognized strains of cannabis, and each strain has a unique balance of cannabinoids and terpenes, which is what makes them distinct from one another. 

Terpenes specifically impact cannabis properties and change the trajectory of the cannabis experience. While some terpenes are known for supporting sleepiness, others are known for the energizing feelings they bring.* 

What is indica?

Cannabis indica is a type of cannabis plant that grows short and stout, kind of like a hedge or a bush. The leaves are broad, flat, and blunted at the ends. Cannabis indica is believed to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is why many strains have the word “kush” in their name. It denotes the origin of the strain or the strain’s parents.

Cannabis indica’s unique shape and structure allow it to thrive in dry, arid climates like mountain ranges. Its short, bushy stature and tendency to grow close to the ground makes it easier for the plant to trap and retain water in areas where rain may be scarce.

Cannabis indica also thrives at high elevation. The highest peak of the Hindu Kush mountain range, Tirich Mir, sits at over 25,000 feet—this is a comparable height to Mount Everest, and it’s much closer to the sun. Damaging UV rays can scorch the leaves of tall plants, and Cannabis indica’s shorter stature allows it to avoid some UV damage.

Cannabis indica is now cultivated all over the world, both indoors and outdoors. Cannabis indica has been used for over 5,000 years, and its seeds have extensively traveled the globe. You can find feral (wild) cannabis in almost every country.

How does indica make you feel?

Most people seek Cannabis indica for its sedative effects.* Many people report that indica makes them feel sleepy. This is a common occurrence with strains that produce a “body high,” where the sensations in your body change, and your limbs may feel heavy.

Indica is generally recommended to relieve discomfort, support sleep, and support a calm mood. People may choose indica strains for sedentary activities, like movie nights at home, creating art, or journaling, for example. 

Indica may not make you feel the same way it makes other people feel, however. Technically speaking, terpenes would be the main reason as to why Cannabis indica would have sedative properties and Cannabis sativa would not. They usually contain the same cannabinoids, sometimes in similar ratios or balances. 

The effects, benefits, and experiences you may have when you use a particular strain are more likely related to the strain itself. It may not matter whether the strain is indica or sativa. It’s an individualized experience, and the only way to know for sure how indica will make you feel is to try it yourself.

What is sativa?

Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica aren’t different types of cannabis; they’re both the same plants, but they’ve adapted to favor specific traits that allowed them to thrive in the wild. 

Cannabis sativa plants are usually very tall and thin, like palm trees, with many leaves growing from the trunk. Cannabis sativa plants can grow as high as 20 feet tall, double the height of a standard basketball hoop. The leaves of a sativa plant are long, thin, and pointy. Most cannabis iconography uses the shape of the sativa leaf rather than the indica leaf. 

Cannabis sativa originated in Central Asia, and evidence suggests that Cannabis sativa has been used in folk remedies for over 12,000 years. At this point in history, humans were just starting to practice agriculture to eliminate the need for hunting and gathering. 

Cannabis sativa plants are native to central Asian woodlands along several river systems. They likely adapted to grow tall and thin to compete for light when growing under the shade of larger shrubs or trees. 

How does sativa make you feel?

Most people describe Cannabis sativa as energizing, uplifting, or euphoric.* The feeling is often described as a head high. It may make you feel happy, talkative, or giggly. Sativa strains are generally regarded as less sedating and more stimulating. 

Some people say that sativa helps to improve their focus or creativity. Many musicians report choosing sativa strains over indica strains when they’re writing music or performing. People tend to choose sativa strains when they have something to do, like a social gathering or a project around the house. 

Your experience with sativa strains may be vastly different. To notice a difference in the way certain strains affect you, this usually requires gaining  experience using both sativa and indica. 

Generalizations may give you a good idea of what to expect, but you won’t know the exact feeling until you’ve tried a strain for yourself. 

What is hybrid cannabis?

Hybrid cannabis is cannabis that has both Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa in its genetic lineage. With that in mind, almost all strains of cannabis are technically hybrids—cannabis plants have been transported across the world and crossbred since long before cannabis growers were keeping track of genetics and lineage. It’s possible that no true sativa or true indica strain currently exists. 

Hybrid cannabis doesn’t have a specific origin because humans cultivate itgrowers choose two strains with excellent traits or genetics and breed the plants together to cultivate a better balance of cannabinoids and terpenes, or to enhance the potential for certain effects. 

In many ways, hybrid cannabis strains are among the best. Knowledgeable growers have worked with nature to custom cultivate cannabis plants to address specific wellness needs, which nature takes much longer to do on its own.* 

How does hybrid cannabis make you feel?

Hybrid cannabis strains don’t have a set profile of effects, as they vary significantly with each specific strain. The effects of a strain likely relate directly to its terpene profile and cannabinoid balance, including how the two interact.*

Prominent cannabis researchers postulate that the potential unique effects of cannabis strains relate to something called the entourage effect. The entourage effect is the theory that all of the cannabinoids and terpenes work together in synergy to create a distinct effect profile.* 

Hybrid strains can be energizing or sedating, and they can give you more of a head high or more of a body high. It’s likely a strain-specific experience.*

Does indica or sativa have more THC?

There is a widespread belief that indica strains are higher in CBD and lower in THC, while sativa strains are lower in CBD and higher in THC. This belief is based on folk knowledge rather than actual science, and it isn’t necessarily true.

Both sativa and indica can be bred to produce very high or very low amounts of THC. Indica strains like Granddaddy Purple and Hindu Kush can contain more than 20% THC, which would be considered very high. Sativa strains like Harlequin are bred to contain 10% CBD and 5% THC. This disproves the idea that one type of cannabis contains more THC than another type—generally speaking.

Does CBD come from indica or sativa?

CBD (cannabidiol) is a major cannabinoid that occurs in all cannabis plants. Most breeders of recreational cannabis prefer to prioritize THC content over CBD content and will breed plants that favor high THC production. 

Breeders of cannabis plants designated for wellness products often do the opposite: they’re more interested in CBD's therapeutic effects than THC's psychoactive effects and will cultivate plants to favor CBD and minor cannabinoid production.

The majority of CBD grown for wellness products doesn’t come from traditional cannabis—instead, it comes from hemp, which is any Cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. This is more of a matter of convenience than a necessity since Cannabis indica plants also possess the ability to produce large amounts of CBD.*

Is hemp considered a cannabis strain?

Hemp isn’t a cannabis strain or a different type of plant. It’s a term used to describe cannabis plants that meet the required specifications to be grown legally. 

Industrial hemp is a very valuable crop that can be used to make sustainable versions of things we use every day, like paper and textiles. Its value was too great to pass up, especially at a time where the need for environmental sustainability is more important than ever. 

The FDA and United States government allowed any cannabis plant that produces 0.3% THC or less by its dry weight to be named hemp. Hemp plants are federally legal to grow as long as growers hold a valid hemp license (which is often free) and pass a background check. 

Are there different types of hybrid cannabis?

Popular hybrid strains like Gelato and Blue Dream have an almost perfectly even balance of sativa and indica lineage. Most hybrids will have either more sativa or more indica. Strains that slightly favor one type of lineage will be called indica-dominant hybrids or sativa-dominant hybrids.

Do indica and sativa have side effects?

All forms of cannabis can have side effects, and if one strain of cannabis causes any of these side effects for you, many other strains of cannabis will likely cause the same.

Some common side effects of cannabis include:

  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry eyes
  • Increased hunger or thirst
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Strange dreams

These side effects will go away on their own as cannabis leaves your system. Side effects are usually more severe if you consume very high THC content which is why it’s important to start low and go slow. You can’t make the effects of cannabis stop after you’ve used itbut you can use more cannabis if you feel the effects aren’t strong enough. Be sure to note that inhaling THC is the fastest way to notice the "high", while delivery methods like gummies can take up to an hour to kick-in. 

How can you pick the right strain for your needs?

If you’re new to cannabis, figuring out where to start can be difficult. The number of options can be overwhelming, and you may not know what questions you should ask the staff at your local dispensary. Here’s how to narrow your search and find strains you’re likely to enjoy.

Establish Your Wellness Goals

Even if you’re only interested in using cannabis recreationally, you probably have a good idea of how you’d like to feel. Do you want a relaxing experience? Are you looking for creative inspiration? Are you hoping that cannabis will help you feel more sociable? 

Jot down how you’d like to feel and use that to explore strains that commonly impart those effects.

Experiment with Terpenes and Cannabinoids

If you’ve never used cannabinoids, you need to know how they affect you. 

Our delta-8 and delta-9 blend live resin-infused gummies will allow you to experience the effects of low THC. You can narrow down your search by trying our sativa live resin gummies and our indica live resin gummies, which may give you a better idea of how different strains may work for you. 

You can experiment with terpenes by smelling essential oils. The aromatic compounds in cannabis are identical to the aromatic compounds that make essential oils fragrant. For example, limonene is found in lemon essential oil. Caryophyllene can be found in black pepper essential oil. Ocimene is found in mint, pinene is found in pine, linalool is found in lavender, myrcene can be found in juniper... the list goes on.

“The nose knows” is a popular expression in cannabis circles, and it means you can simply tell how a strain might affect you by smelling it. By smelling essential oils and contemplating how they make you feel, you’ll be able to establish a starting point for your search. 

If you know that limonene gives you the uplifting feeling you’re looking for, choose strains high in limonene. If the serene and soothing aroma of lavender appeals most to you, choose strains high in linalool. 

Record Your Experiences

After you try a strain of cannabis, record how it makes you feel. What did you like? What do you wish would have been different? Was it a positive, negative, or neutral experience? 

Keeping track can help steer you in the right direction, and when you return to the dispensary or another cannabis/hemp provider, you’ll have a better idea of what questions to ask your budtender.

Your budtender will be able to recommend strains similar to the ones you prefer and help you avoid strains similar to the ones you weren’t happy with.

Explore Cannabis Genetics 

When you find a strain you like, exploring the strain’s genetics can lead you to more strains you might enjoy. Every strain of cannabis has a large family tree. Strains even have parents and half-siblings. 

Trying parent strains of a strain that you enjoyed can help you pinpoint exactly what you liked about it. Trying half-sibling strains may give you similar experiences.

The bottom line

Cannabinoid research is relatively new. Most of the information circulated about cannabis comes from anecdotal experiences rather than scientific research. There are a lot of misconceptions about the differences between sativa, indica, and hybrid strains. The truth is much more nuanced. 

You shouldn’t limit yourself to indica or sativa cannabis if you’re seeking specific effects. Effects are more likely to be strain-specific rather than specific to the type of cannabis you choose. If you’re interested in the way that the effects of cannabinoids may impact your wellness, you can shop our collection of products. Remember, if you are new to THC, start low and slow. Start with a hemp supplement with low THC and you might find exactly what you're looking for. 

 

Sources:

Therapeutic and Medicinal Uses of Terpenes | PMC

Indica and sativa labels are largely meaningless when it comes to cannabis complexities - Dal News | Dalhousie University

Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting | PubMed Central | National Institutes of Health

History of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system | PubMed Central | National Institutes of Health

The Case for the Entourage Effect and Conventional Breeding of Clinical Cannabis: No “Strain,” No Gain | Frontiers in Plant Science

FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD) | FDA

A classification of endangered high-THC cannabis (Cannabis sativa subsp. indica) domesticates and their wild relatives | PMC

The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD | PMC