Gambling Addiction and the Brain

When one thinks of addiction, an inability to curb a craving for alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or other illegal drugs is usually what comes to mind.

With these types of addictions, an individual develops a tolerance, then a physical dependency, and then can’t stop using. They must continue abusing the substance to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.

Behavioral addictions can also be just as harmful as substance use disorder and affect virtually every aspect of a person’s life.

When it comes to these behavioral addictions, food addiction, sex addiction, and gambling addiction are some of the most common. Although behavioral addictions are similar to alcoholism and drug addiction, many question whether gambling is an actual addiction.

Does gambling affect the same areas of the brain as alcohol or drugs? Does gambling addiction progress in much the same way as substance use disorders, beginning with the development of tolerance and continuing to withdrawal in its absence?

Is it easier or harder to recover from a behavioral addiction such as gambling? What are some of the signs that someone could have a gambling addiction?

We will address all of these questions as we try to determine whether gambling is a real addiction, how gambling addiction develops, and how gambling addiction affects or is reflected in the brain.

Is Gambling Addiction Real?

Alongside food and sex, gambling is one of the most frequently cited behaviors that are potentially addictive. , many individuals exhibit problematic gambling behavior, which is characterized by an inability to resist or control gambling impulses. However, is it an actual, real addiction? According to the available evidence, the answer is: Yes.

Gambling addiction — also known as compulsive gambling — is a recognized variant of an impulse control disorder, which is a condition involving an inability or unwillingness to control one’s impulses, desires, or urges. Even when a person with a gambling addiction is aware of the harm that gambling has caused him or herself, and the harm his or her gambling could be causing others, it is still hard to resist the urge to gamble.

In fact, a popular rule of thumb for determining whether gambling addiction is present is to determine whether a person would be willing to gamble the very last bit of his or her money to overcome the debt caused by prior gambling behavior.

In such an instance, the individual would prove that despite having fallen into financial ruin due to gambling, he or she is still ready and willing to gamble away the last of his or her money while expecting a different outcome.

Unlike other forms of addiction, a compulsive or problem gambler doesn’t necessarily have to gamble every day to have a gambling problem. Having a gambling problem simply means an individual can’t see that gambling has caused or is causing him or her problems.

Oftentimes, this is a conscious denial of the reality that gambling is causing individuals harm, which allows them to continue gambling. Additionally, their denial will often lead gamblers to ask their friends and family for loans to get out of debt; they won’t usually admit what the money’s for, but they don’t feel their debt is something they brought on themselves.

This makes them more willing to ask others for money to help pay their debts. In fact, gamblers will often go to great lengths to get more money with which to gamble, much like a person with an alcohol or drug addiction will often resort to desperate or even criminal behavior to obtain the money needed to get more alcohol or drugs.

Gambling Addiction & the Brain’s Opioid Receptors

A recent study sought to determine whether there were neurological differences between people with gambling addiction and people without gambling addiction.

In particular, the researchers wanted to identify any differences in opioid receptors and the stimulation of hormones and neurochemicals like endorphins in the brains of those who struggle with gambling addiction.

Researchers had expected to find that the brains of people with gambling addiction had more opioid receptors than those who didn’t have a gambling addiction, but they actually found that there was no difference in the number of opioid receptors.

After giving both groups medication that would stimulate the production of endorphins, they observed that people with gambling addiction experienced much lower endorphin production. This meant they experienced less euphoria from the spike in endorphins than those who weren’t addicted to gambling.

In individuals who become addicted to alcohol or other substances like cocaine and heroin, their brains develop an elevated number of opioid receptors, which is part of the underlying process of tolerance development and causes people with an addiction to begin needing more and more of their substances of choice to experience the desired effects.

However, the brains of people with gambling addiction don’t develop an elevated number of opioid receptors as they would if they were addicted to alcohol or drugs, This indicates that there are fundamental differences between gambling addiction and chemical dependency.

The fact that people with gambling addiction had much lower levels of endorphins than people who didn’t have gambling addiction after both groups were given a drug to stimulate endorphin production suggests that those who have gambling addiction generally experience much less pleasure from pleasurable things.

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