Everything You Wanted To Know About Cannabis Sativa

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Jun 20, 2023
Last updated:
Jan 19, 2024

Cannabis sativa is a herbaceous species that covers all strains of cannabis, from hemp to OG Kush and everything in between. Cannabis sativa brings with it thousands of years of historical and cultural significance, but we’re only now learning about how it works and what conditions it might be able to treat.

Where Does Cannabis Sativa Come From?

The plant Cannabis sativa is thought to have originated in central Asia, where written evidence of its medical use dates back to 2800BC. First appearing in the pharmacopoeia of Emperor Shen Nung, the father of Chinese medicine, cannabis’ use was also well documented by the Indian Hindus, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans, who prescribed it for everything from arthritis to depression, inflammation, pain and lack of appetite.

Cannabis made its way to Europe around 500BC, where it slowly progressed north and west until the cannabis crop was widespread, albeit mostly through the use of hemp as a fibrous crop. Since then, cannabis sativa has travelled around the world, where its fibres, oils and cannabinoids have been used for various purposes, from the medicinal and spiritual, through to manufacturing textiles, oils and food.

Cannabis sativa’s use diminished significantly in the 20th century, due to widespread prohibition and demonisation. However, as laws and norms around cannabis usage are loosening in many Western nations, we’re witnessing a cannabis revival which is leading to increased medical research and new use cases.

Different Parts Of The Cannabis Sativa Plant

From a medical perspective, it is the flowers, or buds of the cannabis plant that are most commonly used. But nearly every part of the cannabis plant, including the leaves, stalks, seeds and roots, have their own unique properties and purpose.

The flowers contain trichomes, terpenes and resin, which is used to make hash, kief and other concentrates. They also contain therapeutic cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), among more than 100 lesser-known cannabinoids.

While the flowers are the most commonly used part of the plant, it is the distinctive leaves that stand out from a visual perspective. These leaves contain some trichomes, though nowhere near the volume found in flowers.

Cannabis, or hemp seeds are considered a superfood, meaning they are nutritionally complete. With 20 to 25 percent protein and an essential amino acid content (superior to even soybeans), they have become popular in the Western world during the recent wellness boom. But their benefits are hardly new – there is evidence that they have been consumed in China for 3,000 years.

Finally, the plant's stalk is known for its durability and is used to make fabrics, paper and even building materials that act like cement or insulation – all aided by cannabis’ place as one of the fastest growing crops in the world. Since its fibre is biodegradable, it also has the potential to be a more sustainable replacement for plastic.

The Benefits of Cannabis Sativa

Here in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) does not currently track strain-specific prescriptions, but as a whole, medical cannabis – which includes all the strains of the Cannabis sativa plant – is most commonly prescribed for pain, anxiety and sleep disorders.  

There is a large and growing body of research on the symptoms and conditions cannabis can help manage. Some of the most compelling studies support its use to manage nausea and vomiting, particularly in patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and seeking relief from the side effects.

In a review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, it was noted that cannabinoid compounds might have promise in treating nausea in chemotherapy patients. In Australia, the TGA has assessed that medical cannabis could be beneficial in the prevention and management of nausea, but further research is required.

Inflammation and pain are two other symptoms that cannabis sativa could help manage. A 2022 study showed that several phytocannabinoids exhibited activity against inflammation, potentially by binding to endocannabinoids and/or other receptors to activate signalling pathways, while a 2018 review found that cannabis was effective in controlling “neuropathic pain, allodynia, medication-rebound headache, and chronic noncancer pain”

Depression is another condition showing promise in early research. A 2020 study showed that “the vast majority of patients that use cannabis experience antidepressant effects,” though it also notes that symptom relief did not differ by labelled plant phenotypes AKA strains.

Effects of Cannabis Sativa

A point of confusion for new medical cannabis patients is the often talked about distinction between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, a subspecies of the cannabis plant. There’s a widespread belief that Sativa strains have an invigorating effect, whereas Indica strains are more calming. While different strains of cannabis do have different effects on the body, there is little evidence that sativa and indica strains are different on a molecular level.

As a result, much of the cannabis community, including the grandfather of cannabis science Dr. Ethan B Russo, believe it would be more beneficial to throw out the Sativa/Indica naming system altogether.

That said, different strains do feel different when ingested, partly due to the entourage effect. Your doctor will look at the profile of different strains and prescribe a strain and dosage that suits your condition and experience. For example, a doctor will prescribe a different strain for patients who are predominantly looking for relief from anxiety during the day vs. patients who are seeking relief from anxiety-related insomnia at night.

Depending on the dosage and ingestion method, patients should expect to feel effects within 30 minutes to two hours of consumption, with full effects peaking within four hours. Effects can last up to 24 hours, with some residual effects lasting even longer in some individuals.

Some patients may experience adverse side effects like dry mouth, bloodshot eyes, anxiety, increased heart rate and impaired memory and cognition. These side effects are mild and usually self-limiting. You should always reach out to your doctor if you experience an adverse reaction.

It’s important to recognise that individual Cannabis sativa plants may have different effects based on the plant’s chemical composition, so it’s always best to speak to your doctor about the best product for your condition.

How To Consume Cannabis Sativa

With more medical cannabis products available than ever before, patients have plenty of choice when it comes to using Cannabis sativa.

Vaping is one of the most commonly prescribed ways to consume cannabis flower in Australian. Note that vaping is different from smoking. The TGA hasn’t approved smoking as a delivery method for cannabis flower in Australia, due to its adverse health impacts. Vaping offers a healthier, more effective and cost-efficient way to consume your medical cannabis.

Cannabis oils are one of the more popular ways of consuming medical cannabis in Australia, according to data from the TGA. Oils can be isolate, leaving only CBD or THC; broad-spectrum containing other naturally occurring compounds, but removing THC; or full-spectrum where naturally occurring compounds like fatty acids and terpenes remain.

Capsules are an easy way to ingest cannabis, offering a precise dose in a simple format that can be taken discreetly. Cannabis capsules tend to have a slower onset with a longer duration, making them helpful for conditions like chronic pain.

There are many other ways to take medical cannabis, including topically, in lozenge form or as a spray. The delivery format recommended by your doctor will be largely dependent on your condition, recommended dose, symptoms and personal preferences.

Cannabis Sativa: A Plant Of Immense Potential

Cannabis sativa is a historically significant plant species with a wide range of uses in human history. We’re still discovering its full potential, with new use cases being identified and studies being conducted.

If you’re interested in exploring Cannabis sativa to help manage symptoms like anxiety, sleep troubles, pain or nausea, book an appointment with your local GP or a doctor at a medical cannabis clinic.

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