ADHD affects nearly 4% of adults and 8% of children in the United States.
Adderall is one of the medications of choice for managing the symptoms of ADHD.
However, it’s not the only medication that is prescribed.
In some cases, patients may not tolerate the stimulant drug and are recommended another medication, like Wellbutrin.
While Wellbutrin is primarily used as a treatment option for depression, it is sometimes recommended to treat some cases of ADHD.
In this article, I’ll explain what Wellbutrin is, how it works, and what it’s used to treat.
I’ll talk about how Adderall works and what it’s used to treat.
I’ll then explain the differences between these two medications, especially as it relates to ADHD.
I’ll outline some precautions for both medications, and tell you when you should see a doctor or other healthcare professional.
What is Wellbutrin?
Wellbutrin is a brand name version of the antidepressant drug bupropion.
The active ingredient in this medication is bupropion hydrochloride, which is also the active ingredient in Zyban, a drug used to overcome smoking addiction.
Wellbutrin is available in tablet form in three versions: Wellbutrin, Wellbutrin SR (sustained release), and Wellbutrin XL (extended release).
Wellbutrin is an immediate-release medication that begins to work shortly after taking it.
Since it acts quickly, it can be taken up to three times a day.
Rather than an immediate release, Wellbutrin SR releases medication for up to 12 hours. Most patients who are prescribed Wellbutrin SR take the pill twice a day.
Wellbutrin XL slowly releases medication over 24 hours—which means most patients take one pill daily.
Wellbutrin, Wellbutrin SR, and Wellbutrin XL contain the same active ingredient, but they should not be used interchangeably.
This could be dangerous and potentially lead to accidental overdose.
In some cases, Wellbutrin may be prescribed “off-label” for other mental health conditions.
“Off-label” means that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the medication for that particular condition.
However, a doctor may provide justification for why the medication will help manage their patient’s symptoms.
Some “off-label” uses for Wellbutrin include bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sexual dysfunction due to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.
How Wellbutrin works
Scientists believe mental health conditions like depression may involve low levels of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain.
Dopamine plays a role in how we experience pleasure, and affects motivation and perception of reality.
Norepinephrine plays a role in the body’s stress response, and helps regulate sleep, alertness, and blood pressure.
Neurotransmitters are messenger molecules—they carry messages to and from the nerves, brain, and other cells.
Under normal circumstances, these neurotransmitters convey their message and are then reabsorbed back into the body to be recycled.
Wellbutrin belongs to a drug class called norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs), which works to increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain by inhibiting this reabsorption, or “reuptake,” process.
This leaves a larger supply of both readily available in the brain.
What is Adderall?
Adderall is a prescription drug used to manage the symptoms of hyperactivity and impulse control disorders.
This drug contains a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which are central nervous system stimulants.
When prescribed by and under the supervision of, a healthcare professional, Adderall can be a safe, effective treatment for people who have ADHD or narcolepsy.
Unfortunately, Adderall and other similar prescription stimulant drugs are frequently abused.
In a 2018 study, it was found that up to 20% of college students abused prescription stimulants for recreational or academic purposes.
Adults may also misuse Adderall to progress in their career, with the hope that taking the drug can help them get more work done and stay awake longer.
Although taking a drug to study or work for longer periods of time may seem like it could be positive, it is dangerous to take stimulant drugs that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor.
Adderall can be addictive, can increase the risk for mental health problems (like depression), and can cause serious side effects like high blood pressure and stroke.
Adderall should only be taken when prescribed by a medical professional and for the management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy.
For people diagnosed with ADHD, Adderall can improve concentration and focus.
Adderall can also be used to help manage narcolepsy, which is a condition characterized by daytime sleepiness.
This is a very rare condition that affects just one in every 2,000 individuals.
Although Adderall can be prescribed to help manage the condition, many doctors use this as a last resort due to the habit-forming tendencies of the drug.
Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance under The Controlled Substances Act, meaning it carries a high risk of abuse and physical and psychological dependence.
So while Adderall is legal when prescribed for treatment of ADHD or narcolepsy, it is not as easily accessible as other medications due to its classification as a controlled substance.
You cannot get Adderall online.
Instead, patients can only receive an Adderall prescription from an in-person healthcare professional.
How Adderall works
Adderall comes in a tablet or time-released capsule.
When your doctor first prescribes Adderall, they will likely start you off with a low dose to understand your body’s tolerance for the drug.
It is believed that ADHD may be caused by an imbalance of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which could lead to symptoms like decreased motivation and inability to focus.
Adderall helps increase dopamine levels in the brain by slowing down how much dopamine is reabsorbed.
It also helps increase the release of dopamine and norepinephrine into the brain’s synapses, which are pockets of space where messages pass through to communicate.
Brain imaging studies show that when a patient with ADHD stimulants medication like Adderall, there’s increased activity in areas of the brain that are critical to executive function.
Research also shows that stimulants like Adderall can lessen ADHD symptoms in 70-80% of patients who take them.
The Differences Between Wellbutrin and Adderall
Wellbutrin is an antidepressant drug approved for the treatment of depressive disorders, while Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant drug approved for the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy.
Wellbutrin for ADHD
Wellbutrin is used primarily for depressive disorders, but it can also be used to help manage the symptoms of ADHD.
Similar to Adderall, Wellbutrin can increase levels of dopamine in the brain.
Off-label use of Wellbutrin
Wellbutrin is FDA-approved for the treatment of depressive disorders but can be prescribed by a doctor for off-label use.
In this case, a doctor will provide justification for why they believe Wellbutrin can help treat or manage their patient’s symptoms.
A doctor may prescribe Wellbutrin for off-label use to help treat:
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social phobia
- Antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction
What the research says
Adderall and other stimulant medications are the main medications used for treatment of ADHD.
However, stimulant medications may not be the best fit for every patient.
Why your doctor may prefer Wellbutrin to Adderall
A doctor may recommend Wellbutrin to treat ADHD symptoms if:
- You can’t tolerate the side effects of stimulant drugs
- Adderall or other stimulant drugs have not been effective in managing your symptoms
- You have a substance abuse disorder or history of addiction
- You have an addiction to nicotine
- You also have other mental health disorders, like depression, along with ADHD
Before taking Wellbutrin, make sure to discuss potential side effects with your doctor.
It’s normal to experience mild side effects when beginning this new medication.
Having a discussion with your doctor first can help reassure you as your body adjusts to Wellbutrin.
Below are a few common side effects that people may experience when initially taking Wellbutrin:
- Weight loss
- Dry mouth
- Fast heartbeat
- Sore throat or cold-like symptoms
If your symptoms are severe or worsen over time, let your doctor know.
Symptoms should be mild and ease over time.
There are also some serious side effects of Wellbutrin you should be aware of.
If you have any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
- Suicidal thoughts
- Skin rashes or hive outbreak
- Difficulty breathing
- Fast, irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Stomach or muscle pain
- Panic attacks
Before taking Adderall, it’s important to understand the side effects you may experience.
Below is a list of common side effects:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain
Tell your doctor if you are experiencing any of these side effects, especially if they are severe.
They may adjust your Adderall dose or recommend ways to alleviate side effects.
There are also severe side effects you should be aware of.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical care.
- Mood swings, aggression, or new behavioral problems
- Suicidal thoughts
- Uncontrollable movements, muscle twitches, or seizures
- Cardiovascular problems
The symptoms above are not an exhaustive list of potential side effects.
If something doesn’t feel right, contact your doctor as soon as possible.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Raising Awareness About Prescription and Stimulant Abuse in College Students Through On-Campus Community Involvement Projects. (2018).
The Treatment of Narcolepsy With Amphetamine-Based Stimulant Medications: A Call for Better Understanding. (2019).
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