Sativa vs. Indica: The Latest Research

Updated: May 14

The controversy of the appropriateness and scientific validity of the cannabis classifications of sativa and indica continues. Despite plentiful urban legends and misinformation on social media regarding this categorical conundrum, peer-reviewed research regarding the topic continues to emerge, clarifying the issue for millions of patients and lifestyle consumers.

Indica cultivars (strains) of the marijuana plant are known for producing a relaxing and sometimes sedative effect. Anecdotal reports label indica efficacy as a "body high" that is better for treating pain and anxiety than sativa types. Indicas are sometimes whimsically referred to as "in da couch" and are known to convey appetite stimulation (the munchies).


Sativa varieties, on the contrary, are known to deliver a "head high" and to impart energy, intellectual creativity, and to be good for work. Some sativa varieties also squelch appetite (especially if they contain the cannabinoid THCV and the terpene humulene). They are sometimes analogized to caffeine due to their ability to lift depression and increase energy level.


Some sativa varieties also squelch appetite (especially if they contain the cannabinoid THCV and the terpene humulene)

In October 2021, a research study entitled "Cannabis Labelling Is Associated with Genetic Variation in Terpene Synthase Genes" was published in the journal Nature Plants. The researchers investigated the chemical origin of cultivars of cannabis labeled either indica or sativa, seeking a molecular pattern to indicate one category or the other (cultivars featuring equal blends of both are called hybrids).


"Cannabis has been consumed for its psychoactive properties for over 2,500 years and its estimated global market value is US $340 billion," stated the researchers.


The study analyzed nearly 300 samples of cannabis for their cannabinoid and terpene profiles and looked for an alignment between particular profiles and the ability to categorize a cannabis sample as either "sativa" or "indica" based on its efficacy.


They reported that studies to date have been "largely focused on the characterization of genes underlying the production of the cannabinoids cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)."

"The vernacular labels Sativa and Indica are routinely assigned to cannabis cultivars by breeders, retailers, and users to describe a cultivar's morphology, aromas, and/or psychoactive effects. However, it is unclear whether these labels capture meaningful information about cannabis genetic and chemical variation," noted the researchers.


They reported that studies to date have been "largely focused on the characterization of genes underlying the production of the cannabinoids cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)."


The scientists noted that cannabis produces "hundreds of aromatic terpenes that drive consumer preference and are frequently associated with sativa and indica labels," even though it appears that these labels are not based in solid science or most determined by cannabinoid profile.


Terpenes may be partly responsible for the psychoactivity delivered by a sample of loose-leaf or extracted/concentrated cannabis. "There is evidence to suggest that a cultivar's terpene profile affects its psychoactive properties."

The study also reported that terpenes may be partly responsible for the psychoactivity delivered by a sample of loose-leaf or extracted/concentrated cannabis. "There is evidence to suggest that a cultivar's terpene profile affects its psychoactive properties."


The terpene myrcene, the most common to appear in cannabis, was found to be associated with indica cultivars of the herb. "The sedative effect and earthy aroma attributed to high myrcene content are often reported by recreational users to be characteristic of indica cultivars."

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"Our results demonstrate that the sativa–indica scale currently used to label cannabis poorly captures overall genomic...variation," noted the study. It said that "cannabis labelling" should instead be attributed to "a small number of key terpenes whose concentrations contribute to the characteristic aromas commonly associated with sativa and indica and whose variation we genetically mapped..."


A "reliable classification system" may be achieved "by quantifying a small number of terpenes and/or genotyping genetic markers associated with key cannabis aromas."

The study's authors believe that their results suggest that a "reliable classification system" may be achieved "by quantifying a small number of terpenes and/or genotyping genetic markers associated with key cannabis aromas."


This scientific investigation concluded that "sativa- and indica-labelled samples were genetically indistinct." Genetically indistinct, dear readers. Although this is only a single study—and broad conclusions should never be based on isolated research investigations—the authors of the study chose their words carefully.

Instead of variations in cannabinoid profile linked to a difference between indica and sativa varieties, that study's authors reported that they found that "cannabis labelling was associated with variation in a small number of terpenes whose concentrations are controlled by genetic variation...."


Check out the original study here.


Do you prefer indica or sativa effects? Let us know in the comments below! 👇🏽


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