Indica vs. Sativa
The difference between Indica and Sativa is one of the fascinating aspects of the Cannabis plant genus. Cannabis plants contain a unique combination of compounds that create the effects we perceive when we consume them. Each plant has a unique expression of traits that have been curated by the genetic code and refined over millions of years. The most basic difference between Sativa and indica, according to general consensus, is that sativa provide a more stimulating experience, while indica tend to be more sedating. However, as more information comes to light through the study of cannabis genomes, structure, breeding, and cultivation techniques, the Indica vs. Sativa distinction is much more blurry than it may first appear.
The difference between these two cannabis types is obvious when looking at their growth factors, appearance, and the impact they have on the mind and body. However, the vast majority (at least 95%) of common cannabis strains are hybrids, even if leafly says otherwise. This is because, historically, sativa are hardier plants that have been used, among other things, for their stalks and abundant seed production. On the other hand, indica are usually smaller, more delicate, and produce immensely greater quantities of flowers - which are where the cannabinoids are produced and stored. Sativas tend to have a leafier and less compact flower, and the plant itself is quite tall and lanky when compared to short, bushy indica plants.
Naturally, opportunistic farmers sought to combine the robust agricultural qualities of sativa plants with the high cannabinoid production of indica, creating a new plant with the best of both species. This is the story of the birth of hybrid strains, and it has dominated the entire cannabis genus for over a century.
The new hybrid cultivar of cannabis allows for optimum cultivation requirements and optimum cannabinoid yield, simultaneously. It is highly likely that any cannabis product our readers have encountered has been a hybrid, which naturally leads to the next question: what causes the titanic variation between the effect of so-called couch-locking indica and mind-bending sativa?
I’m glad you asked.
While there are very few pure indica or sativa on the market, many strains are classified as indica, for example, because they display a large number of traits that are associated with indica classically. Some varieties are simply defined as hybrids, due to their genetics and attributes containing an equal balance of both Sativa and indica traits, and so on for those branded as sativa.
The beauty of all this hybridization is that expert breeders can create cannabis plants that are perfectly tailored to the needs of an individual! Indeed, the differing effects of different strains of cannabis are directly correlated with the exact amounts of all of the various cannabinoids and terpenes that that particular strain is genetically capable of producing.
Terpenes are organic molecules produced by all living things, which also act on cannabinoid receptors in the human endocannabinoid system. Certain terpenes, like myrcene, are known as positive allosteric modulators (PAM) of cannabinoid receptors. PAMs are chemicals or drugs that increase the effect of another drug, so PAMs that act on cannabinoid receptors increase the effects of cannabinoids - like THC and CBD - which also act on those same receptors.
Because of this interaction between cannabinoids and terpenes - known as the entourage effect - strains with different combinations and ratios of terpenes will have entirely different effects. Cannabis plants have individual genes coding for each specific cannabinoid and terpene which they produce, and it's these genes - which lead to physical characteristics - that create the different perceived effects of the different strains of cannabis.
Indica and Sativa are two of the three species of cannabis; the third is ruderalis. C. ruderalis is a weed that grows in the wild, has very weak stems, and produces very little cannabinoids. Indica and Sativa, on the other hand, have been utilized by humans for thousands of years. In fact, hemp plants - defined as all cannabis plants with less than 0.3% THC by weight - are almost 100% members of the c. Sativa species. By selective breeding, humans have created cannabis plants with almost no cannabinoid content, and cannabis plants which comprise more than 25% cannabinoids by weight.
Cannabis plants are unique in the plant world. They grow almost anywhere, they clean the dirt in which they grow (yes, really; it’s called phytoremediation), and they produce over 160 different terpenes - more than any other plant species, by a lot.
Terpenes are the chemicals produced by living things which we perceive as scents. The unique concoction of terpenes produced by a specific plant comprises that plant’s scent and flavor profile. In fact, the terpene β-caryophyllene is what drug-sniffing dogs respond to when they smell cannabis. Most plants produce between 20 and 50 terpenes that make up its specific flavor profile. Because cannabis plants can produce so many terpenes, differences in the ratios of these terpenes greatly alter the effect of the plant as a whole.
In addition to altering physiological effects, the flavors of cannabis plants are also controlled by terpene content. Cannabis specimens can vary from piney to fruity to pungent. These changes are completely dependent on changes in terpene content. Terpenes are the major components of essential oils and naturopathic remedies.
Terpenes have a wide variety of attributes, in addition to cannabinoids. Linalool occurs in plants such a lavender and citrus, as well as many cannabis plants. It has sedating qualities that can influence the experience of cannabis. On the other hand, pinene, found in some cannabis types as well as sage and pine needles, can create a sense of alertness. The robust expressions of all of these elements are just barely beginning to be understood.
The characteristic that most elevates cannabis plants above the rest of the plant kingdom is their ability to produce both phytocannabinoids and terpenes. Phytocannabinoids are compounds found within the cannabis plant genus which also interact with the endocannabinoid system that is endogenous to (found within) all mammals.
The effects of cannabis plants range from a sedating and bodily experience to a cerebral and stimulating “heady” experience. The unique combination of terpenes, along with THC content, and the presence of other cannabinoids, contribute to this broad spectrum of effects.
The effect of different cannabinoids is being studied extensively, as researchers have discovered more about the way that the human genome impacts the effects of cannabis for individuals. For example, CBN is a compound which appears to have a sedating effect, less so than THC. THCV, on the contrary, has been found mostly in Sativa-dominant varieties, and there are indications that the compound has a stimulating effect. There are over 113 different cannabinoids, and we require very small amounts to feel their effects. Phytocannabinoids also interact with each other greatly, meaning that in combination, their effects can be heightened or diminished depending on the other cannabinoids or terpenes present. Again, this interaction is known as the entourage effect.
The final element in how cannabis affects you is your individual DNA. Importantly, humans have genes for two specific enzymes, known as fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), which break down and degrade cannabinoids once we have consumed them. If we don’t have enough of these enzymes, then we won’t be able to degrade cannabinoids, and they will, therefore, have a more significant effect.
If an individual is particularly sensitive to cannabis, then it is likely that their genes code for less-than-average amounts of these two cannabinoid-degrading enzymes. This is just some of the genetic information we use at MelixGX to help you determine the best strain of cannabis for your particular needs.
Biomarkers, or indications of an individual's response to different stimuli, have been identified in human DNA and can be used to determine the proper cannabis preparation for that person. Genetic testing for an adequate cannabis match is revolutionary, taking the guesswork out of the selection of cannabis products. The world of cannabis is an exciting field at the moment, as genetic and practical testing of the plant is beginning to illuminate the mysteries of cannabis matching.