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Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid: What You Need to Know

When you head to the dispensary, you’ll see products labeled as “sativa,” “indica,”  or a “hybrid” between the two that can be either sativa-dominant or indica-dominant. The terms sativa and indica technically identify a plant’s genetic makeup and physical characteristics. However, over time the cannabis community has adopted these terms to explain how a product might make you feel. Sativa-leaning cannabis strains are associated with energy, while indica-leaning strains are linked to relaxation. However, as we learn more about how cannabis works, we now know that these labels are not as accurate as once thought.

Your cannabis experience is shaped by much more than whether the product’s source plant has sativa, indica, or hybrid traits. What do you need to know before heading to the dispensary? Here, we’ll explain the physical and genetic differences between these strains, and identify which factors have a greater impact on your desired cannabis experience than its indica, sativa, or hybrid designation.

The physical and genetic differences between indica, sativa, and hybrid strains

Before diving into the effects of a certain cannabis strain, it’s important to understand the roots of the indica/sativa/hybrid designation. 

There are notable physical and genetic differences between two main species of cannabis, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. For example, sativa plants are assumed to be tall and skinny, while indica plants are assumed to be short and bushy. These differences can be traced back to what is known as “landrace strains,” or wild varieties of these species that naturally adapted to their environments after being spread by human trade and travel. As cannabis plants adapted to new regions, their characteristics diverged from one another. Indica landrace strains tend to cluster in the Middle East and Asia, while sativa landrace strains often originated in regions like Africa and South America. The different conditions in those regions led the plants to develop general differences in physical and chemical makeup, which are still often cited today as absolute. 

Historically, sativa referred to the species of cannabis that were prominent in the West. These plants often had low THC levels and were primarily used as industrial hemp is used today: for fibers and seeds in the production of industrial goods and food. Indica plants were those more common in the East, known and consumed for their intoxicating qualities caused by heightened levels of THC. However, generations of selecting breeding have blurred the line between the two, resulting in a cannabis product market that consists of mostly hybrids. 

While pure cannabis indica and cannabis sativa strains do exist, most of the strains in dispensaries today are hybrid. Breeders cross sativa and indica plants regularly to optimize cannabinoid production, resistance to disease, or higher yield production , which is why there are so many hundreds of hybrid strain options to choose from. A hybrid plant can exhibit the physical traits of a sativa or indica strain, but could inherit the genetics of the opposite plant. As a result, what the plant looks like can’t always accurately predict how it will make you feel.

What actually shapes your cannabis experience

In a dispensary environment, the terms sativa and indica are often used to reference a type of experience. However, these terms oversimplify the reality of how cannabis works. The way a particular variety of cannabis affects you is instead based on the precise combination of more than 600 chemical compounds found within the plant, as well as the unique way in which they interact with your endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS).

While the sativa, indica, and hybrid classifications have long been used to predict the experience they elicit, it doesn’t tell the whole story. If the sativa/indica divide isn’t the best indicator for your cannabis experience, what should you consider when selecting a strain? 

  • Cannabinoid profile: The levels and ratios of cannabinoids is one of the most important factors in predicting your cannabis experience. Sativa, indica, and hybrid strains can vary wildly in their cannabinoid content, ranging from anywhere around or under 10 percent THC up to 30 percent THC or higher. This percentage is not tied to whether a strain is an indica, sativa, or hybrid.

    The ratio of THC in relation to CBD and other cannabinoids also directly impacts how you’ll feel, as CBD decreases the impact THC has on your body. A strain with significantly more THC than CBD is more likely to induce those classic “high” feelings than a strain with equal or close to equal percentage of THC and CBD. Conversely, a strain high in CBD and low in THC will not cause an intoxicating experience, offering the functional benefits of cannabis without the high.
  • Terpene profile: Cannabis plants also contain compounds known as terpenes, aromatic and flavorful compounds that not only influence a strain’s unique smell and taste, but also make a difference in how people feel. Called the “entourage effect,” terpenes are theorized to drive whether a strain invokes relaxation or boosts energy, among other properties. Research is still ongoing into the connection between the entourage effect and cannabis experience.

    Terpenes like myrcene, humulene, and linalool are thought to produce a more relaxing experience, while limonene and pinene are thought to produce a more energetic experience. Understanding terpenes and the combinations that can influence consumption experience can help you better understand the way a particular strain of cannabis will make you feel. It is terpenes, along with cannabinoid profiles, that offer the greatest insight into how a strain makes a person feel, going a level beyond whether the plant is sativa or indica.
  • Consumption method: The type of product you are considering and how you plan to consume it also matters to the cannabis experience you want to have. Consuming dry flower with a pipe will be dramatically different than eating an edible, both in terms of bioavailability — how much of the cannabis your body actually experiences — and dosage. Even if each of those products are derived from the same strain, cannabis affects your body differently depending on how you consume it. Read our guide to learn more about how methods of consumption influence your overall experience.

Instead of relying upon species classification, it’s usually better to pay attention to a strain’s cannabinoid and terpene profile to best determine the cannabis experience you want to have. These compounds are ultimately what matter, as their interaction with your endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) influences how you feel. Ask us for a breakdown of cannabinoid and terpene content when evaluating your options.

Indica, sativa, or hybrid? The answer isn’t so simple

At Ethos, we want you to feel empowered while choosing the best cannabis product for your desired experience. That’s why we aim to educate our customers by sharing information as new research, knowledge, and evidence comes to light. So as you plan your next visit, remember to go beyond the indica/sativa classification and look into the cannabinoid percentages, terpene profile, and product type that will greatly impact your cannabis experience. 



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