Sativa, indica and hybrid – up, down or in-between – is the common way of understanding cannabis strains. Indica strains are known for being relaxing while sativa strains are energising. Yet if we look at the history of these two terms, it’s rooted in botany, not effects, and any strain can affect us differently because of our unique body chemistry. Science points to the interaction of cannabinoids and terpenes as a better way to understand a strain’s effects. 

The origins of indica and sativa 

Let’s rewind back to 1753. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published Species Plantarum, classifying all cannabis plants under the group Cannabis sativa L. with cannabis as the genus, sativa as the species, and L. indicating Linnaeus’ system. French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck updated these naming conventions in 1785 with two distinct species: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica.  

Sativas originally grew in warm climates, growing tall so they can dry out and not absorb so much humidity. Indicas, on the other hand, originally grew short and dense in cold, northern climates so they could get harvested before winter set in. 

What are cannabinoids? 

The cannabis plant has more than 100 cannabinoids that create its effects. Two of the most well known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the compound that can make you feel high and may help relieve symptoms like pain and nausea. CBD is a non-intoxicating compound that may alleviate anxiety, pain and inflammation. 

Cannabis strains are broken down into three broad types: 

  • THC-dominant strains are high THC, low CBD and could be prescribed for patients treating pain and depression. 
  • Balanced strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD for symptom relief. 
  • CBD-dominant strains are high CBD, low THC and are widely used by patients to ease anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia. 

What are terpenes? 

You’ve probably come across terpenes without even realising it. These naturally occurring compounds found in every plant are what give lemons their zesty scent and lavender its calming effects. In the same way, different cannabis strains can smell and taste earthy, citrusy or sweet because of terpenes. If you’ve ever used essential oils, you may already understand the basics of terpenes and how aromatic compounds produced by plants and fruit can help us relax or feel invigorated. Find out more in our guide to terpenes. 

What is the entourage effect? 

Beyond influencing taste and smell, terpenes play a significant role in the therapeutic effects of cannabis by interacting with cannabinoids in what’s called the entourage effect. 

Think of it like a symphony. On its own, a violin’s melody is beautiful. But when many instruments join together to play their individual parts, the harmonies combine to create an astounding performance. Different elements of the cannabis plant can work together to enhance each other’s effects and create a more powerful overall effect.  

You may also consume fruits, vegetables, herbs and other plant-based foods with terpenes that enhance a strain’s effects. For example, the terpene limonene, found in oranges, lemon, rosemary and peppermint, may help with inflammation, digestive health and stress. 

A cannabis plant can be cultivated with different terpene profiles to create many possibilities. It’s why the black-and-white narrative of sativa vs indica doesn’t always fit. An indica strain with invigorating limonene terpenes may offer different effects to the same strain with the sedative effects of myrcene terpenes. On top of this, dosage, body chemistry, tolerance, setting and consumption method can all influence a strain’s effects.

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Further Reading