What’s the Difference Between Sativa and Indica?

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Jun 17, 2024
Last updated:
Jun 18, 2024

The cannabis plant is a complex feat of natural engineering. 

Made up of more than 400 compounds and 60+ cannabinoids (including the most active ingredients, THC and CBD), some of which have completely opposite effects. 

The way people use and consume cannabis, however, is often decided by subspecies. 

And here, there are just two to pick from: indica or sativa. However, is this how consumers should predetermine effects? Let’s investigate. 

Sativa vs Indica Comparison

Cannabis sativa

First classified by Swedish biologist (and “Father of modern taxonomy” – i.e. naming things) Carl Linnæus in 1753, ‘sativa’ comes from the Latin for ‘cultivated’. Native to East Asia, these days it’s found across Africa, Central America and Asia, where the climate is hot and dry.

Sativa plants are tall – growing up to two metres – take longer to mature than other types of cannabis, and sport long, thin and slim leaves. 

Historically, when looking at landrace strains (which are naturally occurring varieties of cannabis that have developed over time in specific geographic regions), sativa strains tend to have less CBD and more THC content

Landrace, or ‘pure’ sativa strains are also thought to cause more energising effects, which, in many people, can positively impact mood and creativity – for this reason, people often opt to consume sativa based strains or products in the daytime. However, as we’ll touch on later, the hybridisation of most modern cannabis strains renders this distinction in effects far less relevant.

Cannabis indica

Indigenous to the Hindu Kush mountains in Southern Asia, the indica plant adapted to the harsh, bone dry climate of its origin. As you may think, the term "Kush" in many modern cannabis strains originates from this region, as well as one of the original indica landrace strains, aptly named; ‘Hindu Kush’. 

Short and bushy, indica leaves are wider and broader than their sativa cousin, while also growing faster and with more buds.

Compared to pure sativa varieties, landrace and pure indica strains tend to have higher levels of CBD. This can provide a ‘body high’ that helps relieve pain and aid sleep. 

However, it's essential to note that not all indica strains have high CBD levels, and not all sativa strains have low CBD levels. When prescribed cannabis by Alternaleaf, your doctor will advise you on the total THC and CBD percentage in each strain. 

So What is a ‘Hybrid’ Strain? 

Imagine you have a collection of different puzzle pieces. Each piece represents a different type of cannabis plant or ‘strain’, with its own unique effects and traits. Now, what if you start mixing and matching these puzzle pieces to create new combinations? That's how hybrid cannabis plants come to be!

Hybrid cannabis is like a puzzle masterpiece, crafted by blending different strains together. Nowadays, the majority of the cannabis you encounter is actually hybrid because growers are constantly exploring new combinations for a multitude of reasons. 

As hybrids combine traits from different strains, they can produce a wide range of effects. This means that the notion of "sativa for daytime and indica for nighttime" isn't always accurate anymore. In fact, research suggests that cannabis effects are more nuanced and can vary from person to person.

Hybrid strains play a key role in medical cannabis treatment, offering patients a diverse range of therapeutic effects tailored to their specific needs or symptoms. 

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for cannabis strains, and what causes certain effects in one person may be completely different in another. It is always best to speak to your Alternaleaf doctor when considering new strains or treating changes in your symptoms.

Hang On, Isn’t There Another Cannabis Subspecies? 

A third kind of cannabis does exist: ruderalis. But it’s not worth thinking about in this context, really.

A shining example of natural selection (from seed to harvest in a single month, able to withstand extreme cold and little sun), it has roots in Siberia, Russia and the Himalayas. 

And yet. With little THC and some CBD (though not enough to have an impact), ruderalis is seldom used – either medically or recreationally.

Terpene Profiles, and Their Impact on Strains

While it seems like an easy option to judge a cannabis strain on whether it’s mostly sativa, indica or hybrid, a lot can be learned about a strain’s effect (and taste!) by its terpene profile.

Put simply, terpenes are the parts of a plant – any plant – you can smell. 

In cannabis, a strain’s terpene profile holds a diverse array of aromatic compounds, ranging from citrusy notes of lemons to fruity hints of berries, earthy tones of pine, or even spicy accents of pepper. 

In more recent times, numerous terpenes have been combined to evoke sweet flavours in cannabis strains. For example, popular strains like 'Gelato' or 'Cookies' bear aromatic resemblances to ice cream and delicious baked goods.

In recent years with emerging research, it is now thought that terpenes have a direct impact on strain effects. That’s why patients are now often looking to terpene profiles to determine how a new strain may treat their condition, or even the side effects they may want to avoid. 

One example: Terpenes found in cannabis, such as myrcene, may contribute to the analgesic effects of THC and CBD. Higher levels of myrcene have been associated with a potential "couch lock" or more sedative effects, while lower levels can produce higher energy levels.

Not only that, studies show myrcene to have a proven, positive impact on insomnia or anxiety. This means patients living with these conditions can more accurately find the medical cannabis product that may help ease their symptoms – not based on indica or sativa alone, but terpene profile. 

Rethinking the Labels: The Evolving Understanding of Sativa and Indica

As cannabis cultivation and research progress, the oversimplified dichotomy of sativa as energising and indica as sedating is being challenged. New research, as discussed by Dr. Ethan Russo, emphasises the need for a more nuanced understanding. 

Research indicates that the effects of cannabis are determined not solely by its sativa or indica classification but by its chemical composition, including cannabinoids and terpenes. This reevaluation is vital as the majority of cannabis strains available today are hybrids, blending characteristics of both subspecies. As Dr. Russo highlights, relying on simplistic categorisations can be misleading, especially concerning complex substances like cannabis.

This shift in perspective is further supported by recent investigations into consumer perceptions of cannabis labels. 

Research conducted by Dalhousie University found that the traditional labels of "indica" and "sativa" are largely misleading when it comes to describing cannabis strains. Through detailed strain analyses, it was found that these labels do not accurately reflect the chemical and genetic differences between strains

Moreover, the study highlights how strain names themselves are often unreliable indicators of a plant's genetic identity and chemical profile.


  • Indica and sativa are the two main subspecies of the cannabis plant.
  • Hybrid strains (which blend the two) and ruderalis (which is rarely used) also exist.
  • Terpene profiles play a significant role in a strain's effects and flavour, more often providing more accurate insights than subspecies alone.
  • Research into terpenes has helped make this even more scientific, with certain aromas determining what condition, or even individual symptoms, a medical cannabis strain will target.
  • Evolving research challenges traditional sativa and indica classifications, highlighting the intricate role of cannabinoids and terpenes in determining cannabis effects.

If you want to find out more about sativa and indica strains, or what terpenes may help with treating specific health conditions or symptoms, get in touch with an Alternaleaf specialist today.