The Differences Between Cannabis Sativa, Indica and Hybrid

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You’ve probably heard the quips, indica is in-da-couch, if it smells like skunk someone might be smoking the reefer, they go on. There’s some truth behind these quips, since most indica-dominant strains tend to cause relaxation and drowsiness, among other things. But if you’re reading this to figure out the differences between sativa, indica and hybrid cannabis strains, what you probably (actually) want to know is how different strains will affect you and why. The true reason that various strains affect you differently are due to the present cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain. Although this information is becoming more prevalent, science has only recently caught up with cannabis research and development, so the culture still finds it easier to classify strains into the categories of indica-dominant, sativa-dominant and hybrid.


Sativa strains tend to produce a cerebral head-high that affects your mood, focus and productivity levels. For this reason, sativa strains are commonly used during the day; consider them the “uppers” of cannabis.

Popular sativa strains include Sour Diesel, Jack Herer and Haze varieties.

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Strain Pictured: El Jefe (Indica)


Indica strains tend to cause full body relaxation, drowsiness, and can help relieve insomnia, pain and more. Because of these physical effects, indica strains are commonly used more at night or before going to sleep. Consider them the “downers” of cannabis.

Popular indica strains include Northern Lights, many Kush, Purple and OG varieties.


Hybrid strains tends to lie somewhere in the middle of indica and sativa, often depending on their specific cross genetics, terpene and cannabinoid profile.

Popular hybrid strains include Blue Dream and GSC (a.k.a Girl Scout Cookies).


Deciphering Strain Names

To further understand the classification of cannabis strains, you’ll need to know the disputed history of cannabis discovery and naming. Cannabis “strain” names come from the farmer or geneticist who founded it, and literally could not have any direct meaning or tie to the plant. These days there are names like Cheesecake, Zombie Kush and Cookies and Cream, although back in the early 1970s, the strain ‘Hindu Kush’ had just come over to North America from places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (the name is taken from the mountain range near the Afghan-Pakistan border). The cannabis plants that came from this area tended to be shorted and squattier, with thicker, darker leaves, so people called this type indica. In contrast, the cannabis plants growing across North America tended to have taller stalks with slimmer, lighter-green leaves that produced an energizing high. People called this type sativa. As strains started to cross naturally and intentionally, hybrids popped up everywhere. Only more recently are cannabis genetics being tracked and mapped, making the knowledge of their lineage more accessible.

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Strain Pictured: Pink Kush (Indica)

Strains are often named for their smell or effects, which can give you hints about their effects and terpene profile (more on this below). If you didn’t already remember from earlier that the ‘kush’ family is an indica-leaning strain, it’s a good thing to remember since all strains with ‘kush’ in the name should have similar indica-like qualities. Kush strains are known for their dank and earthy smell:


Other strains, like Lemon Skunk, are more straight-forward with their name (it should probably smell like a skunk doused in lemon juice). Lemon indicates that the terpene Limonene (that’s known to help with anxiety and depression) is probably present in that strain. If there’s a fruit listed in the strain name, hints of that fruit should trigger in your nose buds when smelled or smoked, like these popular strains:

Strain Pictured: Lemon Drop (Sativa Dominant Hybrid)

Terpenes and Cannabinoids

Terpenes (often called terps) are diverse chemical molecules found in a variety of plants that produce distinct scents and cellular responses that act as aromatic messages. These “fragrance messages” are how plants communicate with each other and potential predators, as well as our noses. Your body is attracted to certain terpenes for evolutionary reasons–maybe a certain fruit gives your body the nutrients it needs so it signals euphoria when sniffed. Now, terpenes are becoming increasingly popular for their found therapeutic and medicinal benefits. When sniffing cannabis for terpene profile, it’s important to follow your nose and listen to what your body tells you. 


Cannabinoids are other chemical molecules found inside cannabis that trigger other chemical responses in human cells. When cannabis is consumed, the cannabinoids interact with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS), which consists of a network of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main active ingredient and cannabinoid of cannabis, is the cannabinoid people tend to regard the most since its responsible for the high most feel after consuming. The average cannabis flower tends to test around 16 to 20%, with supreme bud testing closer to 30% in THC content. Though THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis, it can’t work its true magic without the entourage effect of all the other cannabinoids in the plant working together.


CBD (cannabidiol) is another popular cannabinoid found in cannabis that does not produce psychoactive effects. Recent studies have found that CBD may relieve pain, lower inflammation, decrease anxiety and more. Other cannabinoids such as CBN and CBDV show promise in possessing medical benefits, as well, not to mention more cannabinoids are being studied and discovered everyday.

Finding your Desired Effect

Cannabis can be tricky because some strains effect some people one way and others another way (confusing, we know). But generally, people’s effects from different cannabis strains are usually similar. For this reason it’s good to crowd-source information from your friends and those who work in the industry, and consult blogs such as this. It’s advised to always consult the individual strain’s description of indica-dominant, sativa-dominant or hybrid, Ask yourself: What am I looking to feel from this cannabis? If you want to be focused and productive, look for a sativa-dominant strain. If you want relaxation and drowsiness, go for an indica-dominant strain. To help yourself keep track, you can start a consumption journal where you write down what you consume when and how it makes you feel. Your personal reviews are always welcome!

Looking at the Big Picture

It’s nice to get high, but it’s even better when your plant medicine can assist you in more ways than one. When looking for the right strain for your body and lifestyle, it’s important to do your research and follow your nose. If a certain strain smells really good to you, there’s probably a reason why your nose is attracted to it. Pay attention to the cannabinoid testing levels, especially if you’re looking to relieve pain or sleep better. Cannabis is about connecting with your roots and the earth from which we came, and cannabis should always be used responsibly and in moderation.


Important clarification: The same strain may vary in terpene and cannabinoid profile depending on growing conditions, climate, location, soil, chemical levels and everything in between. With that said, the same strain of cannabis pulled from the same farm but from a different plant could have different testing levels.