The science behind Sativa - what effects does it offer?

The science behind Sativa - what effects does it offer?


Sam North is an experienced cannabis consultant and writer who provides education and guidance for businesses, commercial projects, and private clients. With over 5 years of industry experience, Sam is passionate about the potential of cannabis to help restore balance and well-being into people's lives.

Cannabis strains are split into three main categories: Sativa, Indica, and hybrids (which are a combination of the two), and each strain has its own unique set of effects. And while the current science is pointing towards the fact that cannabis effects may be far more nuanced than the simple Indica/Sativa split, most Sativa cultivars do seem to provide more cerebral stimulation, uplifting energy, and clarity than Indica dominant options. Or at least, that’s what hundreds of years worth of anecdotal evidence points to, anyway. 

As medicinal cannabis pushes forward in the UK, increasingly patients are turning to the plant for its potential therapeutic benefits, and the science behind their choice is beginning to emerge. 

So, let’s look at what the research is saying, and see if we can't break it down.

How sativa affects the brain

Cannabis Sativa affects the brain through the cannabinoids contained in the plant (phytocannabinoids) which have the ability to interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for modulating many primary and secondary functions in the body, and it is composed of naturally occurring endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), enzymes, and regulatory proteins.

Although there have been over one hundred phytocannabinoids (that is, cannabinoids produced outside the human body) isolated from cannabis, the only two that have been studied in depth are THC and CBD. When phytocannabinoids contained in Sativa strains (such as THC and CBD) interact with the ECS, different effects can be observed in the body, brain, and mind.

THC has been shown to interact with both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. It acts as a partial agonist – meaning it binds to the receptors but doesn’t fully activate them. This is thought to be responsible for the ‘high’ that Sativa strains are associated with, and also some possible therapeutic effects that cannabis offers. 

CB1 receptors are found throughout the brain, with high concentrations in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and other regions associated with higher cognitive functions such as memory, learning, and emotion. Activation of the CB1 receptor is thought to enhance synaptic plasticity, which helps the brain form new connections between neurons, as well as creating a euphoric and uplifting feeling.

CBD, on the other hand, has been shown to have little effect on the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Some research points to the fact that CBD may also hinder the enzymatic breakdown of our own endocannabinoids, leading to increased receptor interactions.

It has also been shown to interact with the receptors responsible for serotonin production, which could explain why Sativa strains are associated with increased focus, improved mood, and elevated energy levels.

Studies have shown that CBD may be able to increase serotonin production through interactions with the 5-HT1A receptor, which researchers believe may be the key to understanding how CBD helps reduce anxiety-related conditions. One (albeit small in scope) study showed that CBD treatment was effective in lowering the severity of PTSD, with the activation of the 5-HT1A receptor being the likely explanation for this effect.

One thing that must be pointed out is that the clinical research into cannabis (and how it may positively affect us) is still very much in the early stages. Thankfully, the political and social landscape surrounding cannabis, and its administration alongside conventional treatment options, is rapidly changing. As with any substance, it’s important to keep in mind the potential adverse effects of cannabis application and always seek professional healthcare advice before making any changes to your current treatment plan.

Negative effects of sativa on the brain

While the science is starting to show just how many possible benefits cannabis Sativa (and the cannabinoids and terpenes it contains) may be able to offer us, it's critical to keep in mind that there can be some negative effects.

This study points to the fact that early use of cannabis, especially in the teenage years or earlier, leads to a “reduced volume of specific brain regions involved in a broad range of executive functions such as memory, learning, and impulse control compared to people who do not use”.

Memory impairment is linked to the hippocampus, and in some animal studies, it has been found that cannabis administration can reduce hippocampal neuron production. However, this assertion does come purely from animal studies, so more research is needed to determine if this effect exists in humans.

Chronic use of cannabis has been linked to an increased risk of developing psychosis or schizophrenia-like symptoms, especially in young males. The relationship between cannabis and psychiatric conditions is complicated and difficult to quantify. However, it is something to be mindful of when taking medicinal cannabis. It is also important to note that these effects are more likely in people who have a family history or predisposition to mental illness.

One downside that most people who have taken cannabis (especially strains with high THC) can attest to is that fine motor skills can be, at least slightly, negatively impacted. Not in a hugely noticeable way, but it is worth noting.

Medical applications of sativa

While cannabis Sativa has a long, recorded history of medicinal usage, its prominence as a therapeutic option in the modern world has only recently come to the fore.

One study, involving almost 1000 participants, looked at the efficacy of Sativa strains in the treatment of a wide range of pain issues. More than 66% of patients reported “pain relief as the main benefit of marijuana use”, with improved sleep being the second most reported positive outcome. The types of pain being looked at in the study ranged from neuropathic pain, post-surgery pain, headaches and migraines, arthritis, back pain, and digestive pain. The results show that cannabis may be effective at reducing a variety of pain-related ailments.

This study, from 2011, looked into the effectiveness of cannabinoids as a treatment for nausea and vomiting, especially with patients facing chemotherapy. It found that “cannabinoids, including CBD, may be effective clinically for treating both nausea and vomiting produced by chemotherapy or other therapeutic treatments”.


So, there we have it. A quick round-up of some potential long-term effects of Cannabis Sativa use, as well as its possible medical applications. We have seen that while there are some potential negative effects with long-term use, the plant may very well offer a variety of benefits, and it can be looked at as an ally to traditional treatment options for medicinal purposes. As with any substance, it is important to proceed with caution and be aware of any potential risks.

Here at Releaf, we offer a full, all-in-one medicinal cannabis platform to help you make the most of this wonderful plant. Releaf was created to help people struggling with a range of ailments safely access medicinal cannabis, and we strive to provide our customers with a comprehensive service to help them make informed decisions when it comes to their health.

If you have any more questions or would like more information, please head over to this link.

Releaf is committed to helping you access the benefits of a medical cannabis service. Our monthly packages are tailored to your cannabis prescription, and we offer specialist consultations for medical cannabis and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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