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Dopamine Deficiency Could Lead To Problematic Gambling Behavior

Written By Derek Helling on September 18, 2023
electricity jolts surrounding brain next to dopamine chemical symbol

The human body is a constant cavalcade of chemical reactions prompted by electricity. Experts say that around a billion biochemical reactions happen in each of our cells every second of the day. Furthermore, when the totality of our cells is put into context of electric production, the average human body produces 70 trillion volts. With all that activity the human body has tremendous potential.

There is also near constant opportunity for something to go awry in any number of ways. Among the vital chemicals in our bodies is dopamine, best understood to have a significant impact on our brains and from there, our emotional and mental states.

Understanding of this chemical and how a deficiency of it affects our behavior points to a potential impact on the development of behavioral pathologies related to gambling. However, isolating a dopamine deficiency as a cause for such issues is complicated at best. A lack of dopamine could actually be an effect instead of a cause of such problems.

Why dopamine is crucial to human life

The Cleveland Clinic explains that dopamine doubles as a hormone and a neurotransmitter. The chemical transmits messages between nerves in the human brain and the rest of the body. Among the functions those messages serve are memory, motivation and reward.

In simpler language, dopamine is the reason you feel happy when eating one of your favorite foods or partaking in a beloved activity. It’s also the reason that gambling can be exciting, including for people without an addiction issue.

A deficiency of dopamine, then, simply means experiencing low levels of the hormone.

The Cleveland Clinic makes it clear that dopamine deficiency is not an actual medical diagnosis. It isn’t currently possible for medical science to ascertain how individual brains respond to certain levels of dopamine. Rather, medical professionals ascertain whether someone might be suffering a deficiency based on their behavior.

Signs that could point toward a dopamine deficiency

The Cleveland Clinic mentions several possible signs that you might not have a sufficient level of dopamine. Those include a lack of motivation and a lack of enjoyment of things that previously brought you great joy.

As far as the potential causes of dopamine deficiency go, that is a complicated situation. The Cleveland Clinic gives an example of why it’s difficult to assess what may be causing a deficiency. In simple language, it’s the old “the chicken or the egg” paradox.

“It’s known that the foods you eat and exercise can affect how your brain uses dopamine. However, do poor food choices (foods that don’t boost dopamine levels) and lack of the motivation to exercise cause a low dopamine level or does a low dopamine level in the brain trigger the ‘reward system’ that makes choosing junk food and not exercising more pleasurable?”

In much the same way, the role of dopamine deficiency when it comes to compulsive gambling is a loaded premise. It might play a role but a causal relationship is hard to establish.

Biological determinants of problematic gambling behavior

Pedro Romero, Lic Psy, PGDip, MBPsS, MBACP, Cert TIHR, is a counselor with extensive cognitive behavioral therapy training. He is also the head of safer gambling for iGamingCoach with experience working for online gambling companies.

Romero believes concerns over biological factors in issues like compulsive gambling are legitimate.

“There is a correlation between the biological, neurological aspects of our bodies and the way we feel and behave,” Romero stated. “It makes sense to a certain extent that if someone has been deprived of rewarding experiences that gambling may be more rewarding for them than for a person who has a better balance in life in that regard.”

At the same time, Romero cautions against isolating factors like a possible deficiency of dopamine as the sole cause of issues like gambling addictions.

“My experience is that sometimes experts over-rely on this explanation and that may not be helpful,” Romero continued. “When I see clients that may be suffering from depression, I ask them, why do you think that is? They may say because I have low levels of serotonin. When you have a conversation with them, you find out that perhaps why they are struggling is because they have had a tough life. What we are finding in most of the people who suffer from an addictive disorder like gambling is that there are often comorbidities. You may also have anxiety or depression or trauma. It’s like if you have big muscles, it may be that you have high levels of creatinine in your body but if you exercise that is also part of the reason why.”

Dopamine’s connection to other issues and attempts to remedy those issues may actually put people at risk of developing a gambling-related pathology. That further emphasizes the importance of whole health in this context.

Risks of gambling pathologies tied to medical treatments

There are medications commonly used to treat certain issues which act as “dopamine antagonists.” According to the Cleveland Clinic, those are drugs which “keep dopamine from activating certain types of cells in your brain and body.”

Such drugs are typically prescribed to treat ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s Disease, and Restless Leg Syndrome. While the treatments may help with those issues, they could create another problem related to problem gambling.

“Another thing we are finding is that people who are taking psychotropic drugs like for Parkinson’s or restless leg syndrome, it may be affecting their neural processing in a way that could be dangerous in terms of problem gambling,” Romero said. “There could be a correlation and people might not be at the top of their cognitive capacities.”

Unfortunately, Romero believes that such considerations are not always taken seriously in these circumstances.

“I think there is a stigma attached to gambling and a lot of general practitioners may not be having conversations with people when they prescribe these medications,” Romero said. “They are going to be focusing on the symptoms you are there to address and may not even ask if you gamble regularly.”

Regardless of how gambling-related pathologies develop, treatment is key. That often involves addressing much more than the problematic gambling behavior, according to Romero.

Problem gambling as a symptom of larger issues

Romero explains why people simply cutting themselves off from opportunities to gamble can be insufficient to address their health problems:

“Overcoming a gambling addiction is very difficult because normally when you have an unhealthy coping mechanism, it was something that worked to an extent in the past,” Romero elaborated. “It’s like with alcohol. Imagine you just started at a new university and you are anxious. You go to a bar, have a few drinks, have a good time with your friends. In that initial stage, even if it isn’t the healthiest choice, it pays off. But what happens if you keep drinking? It’s going to have a negative impact on your health. If the trigger doesn’t change, i.e. your anxiety doesn’t improve, you need to increase the behavior to get the relief. When you have someone who suffers from excessive gambling, there is stuff going on in their life, they have an undiagnosed problem, but they feel better when they gamble, and it gets out of hand. The best thing we can do is to promote mental health overall. If you hurt your knee, you go to the doctor. It’s the same thing with your mental health.”

Because of the complexity and intersectionality of problem gambling issues, Romero said he believes it would be of great benefit for online gambling companies to not only promote the use of responsible gambling tools but also promote mental healthcare in general.

People who take care of their mental and physical health are less likely to develop a compulsive gambling issue. When health issues arise, like a deficiency of dopamine, gambling can go from an exciting diversion to a dangerous activity.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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