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If your healthcare provider has prescribed bupropion (brand name Wellbutrin) to you for depression or help with quitting smoking, you might be curious about one of its common side effects: weight loss.
Can Wellbutrin be used on its own as a weight loss medication?
We’ll break down what the science says, how Wellbutrin works, and what you and your healthcare provider should consider before you start taking Wellbutrin as part of a weight loss regimen.
Does Wellbutrin cause weight loss?
It can. Bupropion (the generic form of Wellbutrin) was initially prescribed as an antidepressant. It is the only antidepressant associated with weight loss (Alonso-Pedrero, 2019). Healthcare providers noticed that mostly pleasant side effect, and today bupropion is sometimes prescribed as part of a medication for weight loss (naltrexone/bupropion, brand name Contrave), as well as a stop-smoking aid (brand name Zyban).
As far as the evidence that bupropion by itself causes weight loss:
- A 2016 study that analyzed the long-term weight loss effect of various antidepressant medications found that non-smokers who took bupropion lost 7.1 pounds over two years. (This effect was not seen in smokers). Users of the other antidepressants in the study gained weight (Arterburn, 2016).
- Bupropion seems to be effective for weight-loss maintenance as well. A 2012 study found that obese adults who took bupropion SR (standard release) in 300mg or 400mg doses lost 7.2% and 10% of their body weight, respectively, over 24 weeks and maintained that weight loss at 48 weeks (Anderson, 2012).
- And a 2019 review of 27 studies on antidepressants and weight gain found that antidepressant use increases body weight by an average of 5%—except bupropion, which is associated with weight loss (Alonso-Pedrero, 2019).
What is Wellbutrin?
Bupropion is a drug known as an NDRI (norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor). It prevents the brain from absorbing free-floating norepinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) and dopamine (otherwise known as the feel-good hormone). This increases the level of both chemicals in the brain (Huecker, 2020). Experts aren’t exactly sure how bupropion works to stimulate weight loss. It may act on receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain that affect metabolism and appetite.
Bupropion is sold in generic form and under several brand names, including:
- Budeprion SR
- Budeprion XL
- Forfivo XL
- Wellbutrin SR (see Important Safety Information)
- Wellbutrin XL (see Important Safety Information)
Bupropion is FDA-approved to treat major depressive disorder (MDD) and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It is also used to help people quit smoking (smoking cessation).
Are weight loss drugs right for me?
If you’re interested in taking bupropion for weight loss, talk with your healthcare provider about whether a weight loss medication is the right option for you.
Healthcare providers consider certain factors before prescribing a weight loss medication. These include the potential benefits of the medication, any possible side effects, your current medical status and medications, your family’s medical history, and cost (NIH, 2016).
Healthcare providers generally prescribe weight loss medications for people with a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or higher, which signifies obesity. If your BMI is 27 to 29, healthcare providers may prescribe a weight-loss drug if you’re experiencing health problems related to overweight, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) or type 2 diabetes (NIH, 2016).
Your healthcare provider also might determine your overweight or obesity can be best treated with simple lifestyle changes—such as a healthy eating plan, regular exercise, and better sleep—before prescribing medication.
The 8 first steps to healthy weight loss: setting you up for success
Side effects of bupropion
Bupropion can cause certain side effects. Common side effects associated with bupropion include mental changes (like hostility or agitation), dry mouth, headaches, nausea and vomiting and dizziness, and others (DailyMed, 2018).
Serious side effects can include seizures, hallucinations, confusion, hypertension (high blood pressure), and allergic reactions (MedlinePlus, 2018). Seek medical advice immediately if you experience these side effects while taking bupropion.
Bupropion can also cause drug interactions with certain other medications, including (DailyMed, 2018):
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
- Blood thinners
- HIV antivirals
- Anti-seizure medications
- Drugs that increase dopamine levels
- Drugs that lower the seizure threshold
This is not a complete list of side effects or drug interactions. If you have questions whether a drug or supplement you’re taking might interact with bupropion, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist.
Weight loss treatments
If you’re considering a medication to treat obesity, bupropion is one of several options. Other medications include phentermine/topiramate (brand name Qsymia), liraglutide (brand name Saxenda), and bupropion/naltrexone (brand name Contrave).
Keep in mind, though, that no weight-loss pill will work magic. Your healthcare provider will recommend a healthy diet and regular exercise in addition to any medication.
- Alonso‐Pedrero, L., Bes‐Rastrollo, M., & Marti, A. (2019). Effects of antidepressant and antipsychotic use on weight gain: A systematic review. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 20(12), 1680–1690. doi: 10.1111/obr.12934. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31524318/
- Anderson, J. W., Greenway, F. L., Fujioka, K., Gadde, K. M., McKenney, J., & O’Neil, P. M. (2002). Bupropion SR enhances weight loss: a 48-week double-blind, placebo- controlled trial. Obesity Research, 10(7), 633–641. doi: 10.1038/oby.2002.86. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12105285/
- Arterburn, D., Sofer, T., Boudreau, D. M., Bogart, A., Westbrook, E. O., Theis, M. K., Simon, G., & Haneuse, S. (2016). Long-Term Weight Change after Initiating Second-Generation Antidepressants. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 5(4), 48. doi: 10.3390/jcm5040048. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27089374/
- DailyMed – Bupropion hydrochloride tablets (2018). Retrieved from https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/drugInfo.cfm?setid=77346c0b-c605-47ed-ba2a-86fc757c7d74
- GlaxoSmithKline. WellbutrinXL. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.wellbutrinxl.com/safety
- Huecker, M. R., Smiley, A., & Saadabadi, A. (2020). Bupropion. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved March 18, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29262173/
- MedlinePlus – Bupropion (2018). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a695033.html
- National Institutes of Health. Prescription medications to treat overweight and obesity. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/prescription-medications-treat-overweight-obesity
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.