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Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid? Differences in terpene content and concentration are the reason different strains produce different effects for patients.

 In Education

One of the first questions a patient is likely to be asked in a dispensary is what type of cannabis they prefer? The short answer is probably indica, sativa, or hybrid, but what does that really mean?

The terms indica and sativa date back to the 1700s, describing the taxonomical classifications of the cannabis plant. Today, these terms are used to name species of cannabis: C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis (wild cannabis).  Hybrid strains can contain a combination of genetics from all three species, but do not have a unique species name.

Indica strains originate in the Kush Mountains of India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Morocco.  These regions have a temperate climate and are typically at higher altitudes.  This environment has led to short, bushy, broad leaved plants that flower quickly and are well suited for colder weather.  On the other hand, sativas originate in warmer climates near the equator in places like Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Central America.  Sativa strains tend to grow tall and lanky and flower much slower than indica strains.  Today, most cannabis strains are hybrids since they are genetic crosses of indicas and sativas.

Traditionally, indica strains have been described as creating a body high producing euphoric, relaxed, and sedative effects.  These strains are typically used to treat pain, insomnia, and nausea. Sativa strains are known to produce a cerebral high with stimulating, creative, and uplifting effects.  Sativas are frequently used to treat depression, PTSD, and ADD as well as stimulate appetite in AIDS and cancer patients. While these characteristics may hold true for some strains, many patients have experienced cerebral highs from indicas and body highs from sativa strains.  Since most strains are actually hybrids, the effects can often be a combination of a body and mind high and vary from patient to patient.  Therefore, the indica/sativa/hybrid nomenclature is probably not the best approach for classifying the potential effects experienced by a patient.

If indica, sativa, and hybrid are not the best way to determine the potential effects of a strain, how should a patient decide what to select?  While scientists have not deciphered the magic formula for predicting the effects a strain will produce, a great place to start is the terpene profile.  Terpenes are small, aromatic compounds that give cannabis its flavors and scents.  Cannabis contains more than 140 different terpenes, many of which are found in other plants, fruits, and flowers.  Differences in terpene content and concentration are the reason different strains produce different effects for patients.

Terpene profiles are a great way to select cannabis strains, but researchers have not been able to correlate a terpene profile to the indica/sativa/hybrid classification.  For example, one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis, beta-myrcene, is typically produced in high concentrations in indica strains.  Beta-myrcene possesses sedative effects and produces the high normally associated with indica strains; however, beta-mycrene is also found in sativa strains and may not produce the same pronounced sedative effects when present in low concentrations and/or in combination with other terpenes. Likewise, alpha- and beta-pinene are terpenes believed to increase alertness and improve mental focus, effects commonly associated with sativa strains; however, they are also found in indica strains.  These terpenes may not have the same stimulating effects when in combination with other terpenes such as beta-myrcene or nerolidol. Therefore, we cannot say a strain is an indica if it contains high levels of beta-myrcene or a strain is a sativa if it contains high levels of alpha- and beta-pinene.

Unfortunately, Federal prohibition has hindered most scientific studies on the therapeutic effects of terpenes in cannabis.  The majority of the information we have is anecdotal or based on very limited scientific studies.  Fortunately for Nevada patients, the state has implemented the most stringent cannabis testing requirements of any legal market so patients can see what terpenes are present in their medication.  Based on terpene profiles, patients can begin to understand why they enjoy certain strains or what combination of terpenes produces the desired medicinal benefits.

We are just scratching the surface on learning about how terpenes interact in the body.  More research is needed to further understand the entourage effect as well as determining which terpenes work synergistically and which ones work antagonistically with other terpenes and cannabinoids. Patients are strongly encouraged to start familiarizing themselves with terpenes and which terpenes are present in the strains they enjoy.  While indica/sativa/hybrid classifications can be useful for describing genetic lineage, geographic origin, and growth and development characteristics, they are probably not the best approach for predicting the potential effects likely experienced by a patient.

By: Oscar Hunt and Darryl Johnson, PhD, Ace Analytical Laboratory


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