Myth vs Fact: Is There Really a Difference Between Sativa vs Indica?

September 13, 2016

Cannabis comes in two "varietals," right? Sativa or Indica. An Indica strain, higher in THC, produces a heavy, sedative, powerful all-consuming body high. Sativas, higher in CBD, produce a more high-energy, stimulative high. The difference between sativa vs indica's are commonly characterized as follows:

Appearance of Sativa vs Indica

Indica plants are generally short, with wider leaves and dense branching, making them particularly suitable for indoor growing.

Sativa plants are tall and lanky, with narrow leaves. They are more suitable for outdoor grows.

Indica = short and wide.
Sativa = tall and thin.

Effects of Sativa vs Indica

Indica strains produce a powerful sedative body high that will lock you to the couch or put you to sleep, hence, they are best-suited for nighttime use.

Sativa strains produce a high that is stimulating, cerebral, and energetic, making them ideal for daytime use.

Indica = heavy and sedative.
Sativa = cerebral and energetic.

The Science of Sativa vs Indica

The “scientific” explanation is high THC-producing plants (Indica strains) express genes that code for THCA synthase, an enzyme that converts CBG into THCA. Once heated, it morphs into THC. Conversely, Sativa strains code for greater amounts of CBDA synthase, which converts CBG into CBDA, a CBD precursor. Thusly, Indica strains have high THC:CBD ratios, while Sativa strains have high CBD:THC ratios.

This is how the narrative goes. But, is this accurate?

Yes and no. More like, sort of.

Due to years of cross-breeding and intentional genetic mutations, there are very few "pure" strains left. Thanks to innovative breeders, we have — quite literally — thousands of different strains.

Scot Waring, Ph.D., a research specialist in genomic sciences and former laboratory director at Steep Hill Labs, explains:

[T]here used to be more of a distinction, but what we have in the US after centuries of international trade and then a century of intense, underground breeding, is that there are fewer true sativas and indicas; mostly hybrids now with notable traits of each.

At one time, strains could be more consistently characterized. As Waring explained, over the years, it’s gotten more complicated. Genetics are constantly being mixed, leading many growers to conclude that very few strains can be considered pure Indica or Sativa.

Interestingly, many botany experts claim cannabis has never only been about Indica or Sativa, but rather, strains hail from four distinct ancestral lines: Sativa, Indica, Kush, and Ruderalis. Can you believe it? Kush may not actually be an Indica? Could Kush be its own distinct sub-variety? Quite possibly.

More importantly, (contrary to popular opinion) THC and CBD aren’t the only stars in town. THC may be the lead actor (in most strains), while CBD is the co-star (with a big on-screen presence); but, there are hundreds of other cannabinoids and terpenoids that play important supporting roles. Characterizing all Indicas as highly sedative and couch-lock inducing, would be like saying all Will Ferrell films are funny. Sure, most are; but not all of them.

Some cannasseurs report to have found a few Sativa-dominant strains that will lock you to the couch so quick, you’ll need a tire iron to pry you off; and, that there are a few dense Indica-dominant strains that will rev you up more than a double espresso. It all comes down to chemical composition. And, cannabis being a complex plant with hundreds of chemicals, can vary dramatically from strain to strain. Not only do cannabinoids play a huge role, but so do terpenes and terpenoids. And, one terpene in particular — myrcene — seems to play a big role.

Myrcene tends to be more prominent in Indica-dominant strains, which may give those strains their signature feature — a heavy high. Waring explains, “myrcene helps THC cross the blood-brain barrier more effectively.” Notably, myrcene is also thought to give lemongrass its reported analgesic properties, which may be why Indica-dominant strains tend to be more effective for treating pain than other strains.

So clearly it’s not totally non-sensical to ascribe generalized properties to Indica and Sativa strains, but it may just be imprecise — and less relevant as time goes on. According to Waring: “The sativa vs. indica classification is a way to give a general idea of how a strain may affect someone, but it is very much oversimplified compared to the genetic variation and complexity of what is out there.”

Waring continues: “There has been some genetic work done on this question and it has inspired attempts to reorganize relationships of strains and create new nomenclature that reflects this.”

So there you have it! Differentiating between Sativa vs Indica isn’t totally ill-conceived. There is merit to the distinction, but it’s not always consistent, and the distinction is becoming less meaningful as hybridization continues.


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