Cannabis Sativa

What is Cannabis Sativa? A guide to sativa marijuana strains, their effects and medical uses, and how they work.
Last Modified: March 05, 2019

For a cannabis consumer to determine how a strain is likely to make them feel, it’s helpful to know if it’s an indica or a sativa strain. Cannabis sativa is known for its uplifting and stimulating effects, while indica strains tend to relax and calm. Understanding the difference between the two and how they work can help recreational and medical marijuana users better customize and control the effects they experience.

What is Cannabis Sativa?

Cannabis sativa can be quite confusing. It’s the scientific name for the non-psychoactive plant that’s also known as hemp. It’s also the name for the subspecies of cannabis that contains THC and causes a stimulating, euphoric high. To be clear, in a discussion of sativa versus indica, it’s the THC-laden subspecies of sativa that’s being explored.

The next most important thing to know about cannabis sativa is how it affects those who consume it. This type of marijuana is best known for its characteristic sativa “head” high.


What Are the Effects of Sativa?

The reason a sativa high is described as a “head” high is because unlike indica (where the effects are felt mostly in the body), sativa marijuana strains cause a high that’s felt mostly in the brain. A sativa high tends to be more hallucinogenic than the one brought on by indica strains.

Some describe sativa effects as an uplifting infusion of creative energy. While indica strains make people feel calm and relaxed, sativa makes them want to get off of the couch, clean, paint, dance, create something, or do something constructive. Cannabis sativa is typically recommended for daytime use, as these strains may interrupt the ability to settle down and sleep at night.

People who are prone to feeling anxious when they smoke should avoid strong sativas or seek out a sativa-dominant hybrid that will feature indica characteristics to counterbalance the effects. Those who would like to feel energized and focused without being anxious or jittery may discover that a sativa hybrid offers the best of both worlds.


What’s Behind the Effects of Sativa?

While scientists aren’t sure why different types of marijuana work the way they do, they have explored the effects of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. By looking into the cannabinoid profile of a sativa marijuana strain, consumers can better predict what its effects will be.

THC

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is what causes marijuana’s euphoric high. It’s excellent at relaxing muscles and relieving pain. It’s also the cannabinoid that’s responsible for some of the less-pleasant effects of marijuana such as anxiety. Sativa strains are often quite high in THC – one of the reasons they induce such a strong “head” high.

CBD

Next to THC, CBD (cannabidiol) is the cannabinoid found in the highest concentrations. CBD is non-psychoactive and counteracts the psychoactive and anxiety-inducing effects of THC. A calming cannabinoid, CBD is known for its effectiveness at treating anxiety and insomnia. Some sativa marijuana strains have high concentrations of CBD, which can help balance out their stimulating effects.

A large number of sativas have a high CBD-to-THC ratio. This leaves many people wondering how strains that contain a high percentage of CBD can still be energizing and uplifting. The answer lies in marijuana terpenes.

Terpenes

Terpenes (otherwise known as terpenoids) are the chemical compounds in plants that have aromatic and flavonoid properties. Similar to essential oils, cannabis terpenes have aromatherapeutic properties that help enhance the overall recreational or medicinal effects of indica and sativa cannabis strains. Some terpenes are stimulating, some are good for pain, while others have sedative properties.

The Entourage Effect

In addition to working as individual elements, terpenes such as myrcene, caryophyllene, pinene, terpinolene, and limonene likely produce various effects when they are mixed with each other, as well as with cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBG, and others.

This phenomenon is known as the “entourage effect,” and it explains how different cannabinoids and terpenes have various effects when they’re consumed in different combinations. Researchers are studying the entourage effect to determine how different cannabis ingredients can be combined in various amounts to achieve different effects. In the meantime, this might provide some explanation for the difference between sativa marijuana effects and those of indica strains.


Medical Benefits of Cannabis Sativa

Because sativa has very specific effects, it’s useful for particular medical problems. Here are just a few of the diseases and ailments that sativa can help ease:

ADHD

Sativa-dominant strains of marijuana are useful for individuals with ADHD because while they provide energy, they also increase focus. This makes them excellent for ADHD sufferers who need intense concentration to get tasks done.

Depression

Because sativa elevates mood and increases the desire to get up and move, it’s also a helpful treatment for depression. Many sativa strains have abundant amounts of CBD (cannabinol), which has been proven to be a natural antidepressant.

Appetite Stimulant

Patients with cancer and anorexia struggle with nausea and an overall lack of appetite. Sativas work as an all-natural way to stimulate hunger. Cannabis is also excellent at relieving nausea, which makes it a powerful medication for those undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy.

Pain

High amounts of THC make many sativa cannabis strains particularly effective at relieving pain. Because of their energizing effects, this makes sativa a more useful treatment than prescription painkillers such as opioids, as the latter can cause drowsiness and limit the patient’s ability to function.


Characteristics of the Sativa Plant

Sativa and indica plants aren’t just different in their cannabinoid/terpene makeup; they also look different in appearance. A sativa plant tends to be taller than an indica, typically around 6 feet high but with the potential to grow as high as 20 feet. Sativa plants will truly maximize their height if grown outdoors. A sativa leaf also differs in its appearance from its indica cousins; cannabis sativa leaves are long and narrow and the branches grow loosely throughout the entire plant. This differentiates them from the thick bushiness of indica plants.

Harvest times also differ between the two sub-species, with the cannabis sativa plant taking anywhere from 9 to 12 weeks before it’s ready to harvest and an indica taking only 6 to 8 weeks. While both are currently grown and harvested all over the world, sativa originally came from warm countries like Mexico, Columbia, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Indica, on the other hand, came from the cooler climates of the Middle East and India.

Apart from appearance and geographical origin, sativa and indica plants also differ in their scent. Sativa buds have a lighter scent that’s frequently floral, fruity, or even sweet. Meanwhile, indica strains smell stronger and more pungent.


Cannabis Sativa FAQ

Questions abound when it comes to the uses and effects of sativa versus indica. Here are some of the most frequently-asked ones.

What is cannabis sativa?

Cannabis sativa is a sub-species of the cannabis plant, with its low-THC varieties used to make industrial hemp products and its higher-THC strains used for recreational and medical marijuana. Sativa effects are generally stimulating, uplifting, and are often described as a “head” high.

What is sativa good for?

A sativa high helps direct focus and increase productivity. Due to their uplifting nature, sativa marijuana strains are often recommended for people battling depression. They’re also excellent for those with ADHD and can help stimulate appetite in those with HIV/AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Does sativa make you sleepy?

It’s exactly the opposite; sativa cannabis strains are energizing and stimulating. While they’re highly recommended for daytime use when people need to get things done, sativa side effects may interfere with sleep and aren’t recommended for nighttime use. They’re also not recommended for people with anxiety.

Can you smell the difference between sativa and indica?

Sativa buds are often described as having a lighter aroma that’s sweet and sometimes fruity or floral. Meanwhile, indica flowers have a stronger and frequently pungent or musty scent. The plants also look different before harvest – with sativas growing tall and slim and indicas staying short and more bushy.


Choosing the Best Sativa Strain

With each strain of cannabis sativa having different concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes, they all have highly individual effects. Finding the best strain for personal preference or a specific medical condition often depends on research and experimenting with different strains and dosages.

While reading up and talking to dispensary staff is the best way to determine which strain is which, as a general rule, any strain with “Haze” in the name will be a sativa or a sativa hybrid. Sativa-dominant hybrids are an excellent way to take advantage of sativa effects while balancing them out with soothing indica characteristics.

It’s also important to remember that same strain can differ from one harvest to the next. Consumers should always start slow, especially with strains they haven’t tried before. In time, people can learn to customize the effects they can expect from their cannabis by choosing sativa marijuana strains with characteristics that work best for their personality or medical condition. From a variety of strains to different combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes, the world of cannabis offers an infinite array of options.


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