Sativa & Indica: Differences, Effects And More

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Apr 14, 2022
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

For many years, cannabis marketers and consumers have adhered to a system that divides cannabis into three categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Indica is said to relax and facilitate sleep; sativa reportedly induces energetic highs; and hybrids vary between the two. However, there’s no evidence that these strains are different on a molecular level.

So what mechanism is at work here, and why do these strains each make you feel different? It turns out it’s all about the entourage theory.

A Brief History of Taxonomy: Cannabis Sativa L.

If there’s no real difference between what we know as indica and sativa, then how did they wind up with these names and distinctions in the first place? You can thank the French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark for that, as he came up with this taxonomy in the 18th century.

Lamark created the names for indica and sativa based on his assessment of cannabis plants. Of the two, sativa was taller than indica, with slender stems and willowy leaves. Indica was stout, with stronger stems and smaller leaves.

Lamark reasoned that because the two plants looked different, they must cause different sensations when consumed. He also figured they would be useful for disparate conditions and situations.

At the end of the day, however, there’s likely only one type of cannabis — and that’s Cannabis sativa L. It can look different, as so-called indica and sativa do, but by the time scientists figured this out, Lamark’s naming system had already proliferated and stuck.

Chemically Speaking, There Is No Difference Between Indica and Sativa

Indeed, there is no difference between indica and sativa on a molecular level, despite the fact that many folks believe there is.

Dr. Ethan B. Russo, the grandfather of cannabis science, told Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research that the claim is patently false. “We would all prefer simple nostrums to explain complex systems,” he said, “but this is futile and even potentially dangerous in the context of a psychoactive drug such as Cannabis. Once again, it is necessary to quantify the biochemical components of a given Cannabis strain and correlate these with the observed effects in real patients.”

Because the assigned differences between indica and sativa are fiction, Russo would like to see the dichotomy tossed out.

“Since the taxonomists cannot agree, I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature.” Ethan B. Russo

Why Do Different Types (Strains) Feel Different?

Since we’ve established that there is no scientific difference between an indica and sativa, it’s only fair to discuss why these strains might feel so different when ingested. The most likely hypothesis is the entourage theory, also called the entourage effect.

This theory suggests that there are other elements in cannabis, such as terpenes, that may impact how your body processes the substance. In other words, there’s more at work than the THC:CBD ratio that impacts how you feel.

Wait, what are terpenes? These naturally occurring compounds exist in all types of plants, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. They are, in essence, essential oils responsible for aromas and flavours. The citrusy scent of lemons, or the musky scent of cloves. Cannabis also produces terpenes, which make up its tell tale smell.

Yet, it's often assumed that it's only the cannabinoid ratio that is the main mechanism that determines how a strain will affect you. However, this doesn’t hold much water, as CBD can be mildly stimulating depending on dose, per Russo. So what’s really happening when you feel sleepy or uplifted after ingesting cannabis?

“Sedation in most common Cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic,” Russo explained.

“In contrast, a high limonene content (common to citrus peels) will be uplifting on mood, while the presence of the relatively rare terpene in Cannabis, alpha-pinene, can effectively reduce or eliminate the short term memory impairment classically induced by THC.”

Cannabis and Your Body

Russo revealed that the entourage theory can be likened to a symphony, in which many musicians playing many instruments each comprise one part of a nuanced, greater whole. This metaphor also applies to cannabis and explains why different varieties of the substance have different effects.

Mystery solved.

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