Adderall vs. Wellbutrin: What you need to know

Adderall vs. Wellbutrin: What you need to know

Reviewed by:
Michael Roman, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
March 26, 2024
In this article

Living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be hard. Treatment for it is well-researched and effective. Mental health professionals, like psychiatrists, are trained to understand, diagnose, and—when appropriate—prescribe medication to treat ADHD. Adderall and Wellbutrin are two of the more common medications for ADHD. Here we’ll cover the differences, similarities, side effects, and dosage information about both medications.

Before we jump in, we want to talk a little bit about diagnosing ADHD in general. Putting a name to what you’re feeling can be an important step in the process. When not feeling well, it can also be tempting to self-diagnose. It’s a trend we notice on social media all the time. ADHD is a complex condition. Its symptoms often overlap with other conditions, too. Getting the right diagnosis and corresponding treatment plan from a trained professional is so important to feeling like yourself.

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How do Adderall and Wellbutrin work?  

Both Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) and Wellbutrin (bupropion) work similarly: By affecting the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine available for the brain.  

People with ADHD generally have lower levels of these neurotransmitters. Dopamine regulates your motivation and concentration, and when you experience something rewarding, dopamine pathways in your brain are activated to give you a feeling of pleasure. Norepinephrine plays a role in your fight-or-flight response. People with ADHD tend to be easily distracted and seek constant stimulation for feelings of pleasure and reward due to these lower levels of neurotransmitters, which Adderall and Wellbutirn help to balance.  

Differences between Adderall and Wellbutrin

Adderall is a stimulant medication mainly prescribed to treat ADHD. Wellbutrin is an antidepressant medication, but is also sometimes prescribed by doctors to treat ADHD symptoms and anxiety.

What kinds of medication are Adderall and Wellbutrin?  

Wellbutrin is an antidepressant that belongs to the class of norepinephrine and dopamine uptake inhibitors (NDRIs). NDRIs work by stopping certain nerve cells from reabsorbing, or “taking up,” the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. This keeps the brain’s level of these chemicals high.

Adderall belongs to a class of drugs called NDRAs which stands for norepinephrine and dopamine releasing agents. NDRA’s act on brain cells, causing them to produce more dopamine so more of it is available in the brain.  It’s a CNS (central nervous system) stimulant, also known as a psychostimulant because it specifically affects the mind. Adderall is also a controlled substance, so there may be limits as to how much and how often you can receive this medication.

Although Wellbutrin and Adderall work differently and belong to different classes of drugs, both medications can be effective for reducing symptoms of ADHD, like inattention and impulsivity. If you’re living with ADHD, your doctor will help you decide which medication is right for you. This will depend on factors like your health history and the symptoms you are experiencing.  

What are they used for?

Wellbutrin is FDA-approved as an antidepressant. It is also officially prescribed as an aid to smoking cessation, because it can help ease withdrawal symptoms as well as mimicking some effects of nicotine.

Adderall is mainly prescribed as an ADHD medication but in some cases, due to its stimulant effects, it can be used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. It is highly effective at improving mood, cognition, and motivation, but it can also cause anxiety, jitters, and other side effects typical of stimulant drugs. Remember to only take Adderall as prescribed because it can have dangerous side effects if not used appropriately.

How often should you take Adderall and Wellbutrin?

One major difference between Adderall and Wellbutrin is how often you should take it. Adderall acts quickly and is usually prescribed to be taken as needed. Some people with ADHD struggle with specific tasks and may not want or need to take Adderall on a daily basis. Wellbutrin, on the other hand, must be taken every day at your prescribed dosage. Stopping it abruptly can be harmful. If you want to stop taking it, a doctor will help you taper down safely in order to quit.  

What dosage will you be prescribed?

If you are prescribed Adderall or Wellbutrin, your starting dosage will not necessarily be the one you end up taking long-term. There will be a period of adjustment as you and your doctor work together to figure out what dosage is best for you.  

If you take Wellbutrin it will be in regular (immediate release), sustained release (SR), or extended release (XL) dosages.

  • Your dosage of regular Wellbutrin will start at 200mg, in the form of 100mg tablets taken twice daily, and may be increased up to 300mg, taken as 100mg three times daily.  
  • If prescribed Wellbutrin SR, you will start at a dosage of 150mg taken once daily, increasing if necessary to 150mg taken twice a day.  
  • If prescribed Wellbutrin XL, you will start at a dosage of 150mg taken once daily, increasing if necessary up to 300mg taken once daily.  

Adderall is also offered in immediate-release (IR) and extended-release (XR) forms.  

  • If prescribed Adderall IR, your dosage will start at 5mg, taken up to twice a day. Your dosage may increase to up to 40mg divided into three dosages throughout the day.  
  • If prescribed Adderall XR, your dosage will start at 20mg taken once per day, and may be increased to up to 40mg taken once per day.
  • The maximum dose of Adderall IR and SR is 60mg per day.

How long do the effects take to kick in?  

Adderall is a stimulant and works quickly on the brain. If prescribed it for ADHD, you should be able to feel it working an hour or sooner after you take it, depending on your dosage. However, your initial dosage of Adderall may not be the right one for you, and you may also experience various side effects, so be sure to check in regularly with a healthcare professional about how you’re feeling so they can adjust your dosage.

Though it can have stimulant-like effects, Wellbutrin is not a stimulant, and if you are prescribed it as ADHD treatment, you will probably not begin to feel it work right away. You may need 4 weeks or longer on Wellbutrin in order for it to reach full effectiveness in treating your ADHD symptoms. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re dealing with uncomfortable side effects in the meantime, but make sure to keep taking it and talk to your healthcare provider about any side effects you’re experiencing alongside improvements in your symptoms.  

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What are the side effects?

Because the way they work is pretty similar, there’s more than a little bit of overlap between the potential side effects of both Adderall and Wellbutrin. You may not necessarily experience all or even any of these effects if you are prescribed either of these medications.  

Common side effects of Adderall can include:  

  • Stomach pain
  • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite/weight loss
  • Insomnia  
  • Headache

Common side effects of Wellbutrin can include:  

  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Mood changes
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Hyperventilation
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness

Do people use Wellbutrin to treat ADHD?  

Technically, the use of Wellbutrin to treat ADHD is what’s called an “off-label” use. Officially, it is only approved by the FDA to treat depression, bipolar disorder, and as a smoking cessation aid. But doctors also sometimes recommend it to help with symptoms of anxiety and ADHD.  

This is because it can have similar effects on the brain to stimulants, without many of the uncomfortable side effects and addictive properties of a stimulant medication like Adderall. If you have an existing cardiac condition, which means stimulants are not a safe choice for you, and may affect your heart, your doctor might recommend Wellbutrin as an alternative.  

Studies on Wellbutrin (bupropion) as a treatment for ADHD have shown that it can potentially help some patients with their ADHD symptoms, working better than a placebo. Although Wellbutrin demonstrates substantial clinical evidence for ADHD treatment, stimulants continue to be first line treatment for ADHD

Even though stimulants are often the first recommendation to treat ADHD, everyone reacts to medications differently, and your doctor will help you figure out what works best for you. That might mean a non-stimulant drug like Wellbutrin is your best choice.  

Many adults diagnosed with ADHD have also been diagnosed with another psychiatric condition. If you are struggling with ADHD symptoms alongside major depression, a drug like Wellbutrin which can help relieve symptoms of both conditions might be very helpful.  

Can you take both Adderall and Wellbutrin?  

The guidelines for Wellbutrin and Adderall don’t forbid taking both together. A doctor might even prescribe both to treat your ADHD alongside symptoms of major depressive disorder, but there are some precautions.

Because Wellbutrin and Adderall have some of the same side effects, some medical professionals don’t recommend taking them together, because they can increase the intensity of reactions such as:  

  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol sensitivity  

If your doctor prescribes both medications, they’ll let you know what to look out for. They’ll also help minimize any adverse effects and keep an eye on how you’re doing.  

If you have depression and ADHD, there are many antidepressants you can’t take at the same time as Adderall because of the risk of serotonin syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly interaction. This includes SSRIs like Celexa (citalopram), and Prozac (fluoxetine) and SNRIs, like Effexor (venlafaxine) and Cymbalta (duloxetine).  

Wellbutrin is an “atypical antidepressant,” known as an NDRI, which doesn’t affect serotonin. However, there have been reported cases of Wellbutrin contributing to serotonin syndrome.  

Because Wellbutrin and Adderall have some of the same side effects (and because Wellbutrin may work to increase the levels of amphetamine in the bloodstream) some medical professionals don’t recommend taking them together, because they can increase the intensity of reactions such as:  

  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol sensitivity  

If your doctor prescribes both medications, they’ll let you know what to look out for. They’ll also help minimize any risks and keep an eye on how you’re doing.  

Which is more effective?

Adderall is the recognized and recommended first-line treatment option for diagnosed ADHD. Studies have shown that it, in people with ADHD, Adderall improves mood and cognition, and is highly efficacious in treating impulsivity and inattention. But the fact is that despite its bona fides, Adderall simply isn’t the ideal treatment for everyone. Between 30% to 50% of people with ADHD have symptoms that do not respond well to stimulants, so alternatives like Wellbutrin are very important options.  

If you are worried about the addictive potential of a stimulant such as Adderall, Wellbutrin may be a good choice for you. Unlike Adderall, Wellbutrin has less of a risk for misuse addictive stimulant, and it may help you manage your ADHD symptoms without developing a chemical dependence. Regardless, medications should be taken exactly as prescribed by your medical provider.

A 2005 study proposed that Wellbutrin might be most effective in treating patients who have major depression as well as ADHD. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, you should consult with your doctor so that these symptoms can be taken into account when your treatment plan is being created.  

However, everyone responds to medication differently. That’s why it’s important to discuss your concerns with a doctor. If you are diagnosed with ADHD, a consultation with a health professional who has prescribed both medications and understands their effects will be the best way to determine which might be better for you and your unique set of symptoms.  

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network virtual care. We treat a number of mental health conditions, including ADHD, anxiety and depression. You can take our free online assessment to get matched with a psychiatrist who you can see from the comfort of your home within a few days.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Dr. Michael Roman is currently a Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Roman is a board-certified Adult Psychiatrist and a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Dr. Roman’s clinical practice centers primarily around medication management and psychopharmacological treatment approaches. He also specializes in a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities which he utilizes in conjunction with medication management in order to provide patients with the best possible treatment outcomes.

Dr. Roman’s curiosity for the studies of the human mind began with pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was intrigued by the way our mind, body, emotions, and behavior were intertwined to comprise our everyday life experiences. His interest in the intricacy of the human mind was deepened in medical school, and he received his medical degree from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Roman treats a wide spectrum of patients, but his primary clinical focus is treating mood disorders, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. Dr. Roman also specializes in treating substance use disorders and possesses clinical expertise in implementing high quality motivational interviewing and motivational enhancing therapy.

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