20-30% of all migraine sufferers experience the aural phase which can include a fortification spectra.
Luckily, science has been advancing rapidly and we are starting to understand what is going on with our brains when this happens.
In this article, I’m going to be talking about 5 remarkable causes of fortification spectra migraines, what it means and what can be done.
What is a fortification spectra/fortification spectrum migraine?
A fortification spectra migraine is a type of migraine with aura that has the characteristic visual image seen below.
Migraine with aura is a unique type of migraine in that before the head pain phase, there is a set of symptoms that precede which usually end right before the migraine head pain phase starts.
The 4 phases of a migraine with aura are seen in the pin below:
It’s important to note that the fortification spectra will come in the aura phase of the migraine attack.
See this video on what a fortification spectra looks like:
Let’s get into the details.
5 Remarkable causes of fortification spectra migraines
1. Trigger level + threshold level = migraine?
Before we start we have to know what we are trying to do, as well as the 50,000 foot view of what is causing the spectra.
Above all, we need to understand that if our trigger levels go over our threshold level, we are in the high risk and extremely fragile zone of our brains. This is trigger central and the likelihood of trigger is high.
Our trigger level is the sum total of stress load on the body. The body uses what is called nociception to tally up all of the stress on the nervous system. This stress can come from anywhere because our nervous system is connected to our whole body.
- Mental/Emotional Stress
- Food sensitivities
- Gut infections
- Electromagnetic fields
- Physical Stress
- Structural imbalances
- Lack of hydration
- Breathing imbalances
- Poor sleep quality
- Non-alkaline urine
- Cultural and social stress
- Even spiritual stress
These are all taken by the body and perceived by the nervous system as harmful. The higher our trigger levels, the more sensitive our brain becomes.
Then there is threshold level. Our threshold is the level of tolerance our body has to stress. It’s the upper limit that it can take before the stress becomes too much to be able to maintain normal functioning.
Its a simple equation between these two.
If our nervous system’s total perceived stress(trigger level) is higher than our body’s ability to tolerate stress(threshold level) then we will trigger a flare-up.
For some, it may only be a flare of their migraines, for others with comorbidities it may also be a flare-up of IBS or their lupus or their rheumatoid arthritis or their depression or anxiety etc.
The body is completely interconnected by the nervous system and when stress is more than it can tolerate, we get symptoms.
Next, we have to understand hypersensitivity of the brain and central sensitization.
When our stress level from all of the different areas is constantly high, our brain takes a beating.
Our brain is always trying to produce enough energy to deal with the stress that is going on in the environment.
But this energy takes dozens of different nutrients to produce.
If we have the reserves of nutrients then dealing with stress is just a blip on the radar.
But going through chronic levels of stress non-stop means our brain needs to constantly produce more and more energy.
This means there is a constant need for more and more nutrients.
We have to provide these or else the nutrient generating pathways of the brain start breaking down.
This means whole foods, pastured and wild meats and organic vegetables that we aren’t sensitive to.
But when these pathways don’t have a certain nutrient, they start getting backlogged, just like a factory line that is missing one piece of the manufacturing process.
Everything will start piling up and these half made products can actually become incredibly damaging and oxidizing to our brain cells. If enough pile-up and the brain doesn’t have antioxidant nutrients to stop the damage, the brain cell may die.
If this is happening within all of our brain cells because of too much stress and not enough nutrients being delivered…
Our brain goes into hypersensitivity.
Remember that pain is a protective reflex and studies have actually shown that migraine is used by the body to bring more nutrients to the brain. What is one of the first things that happens when a migraine comes on? Your heart begins to race which increases blood flow and nutrient delivery.
So then the brain becomes highly sensitive to everything. It becomes hypersensitive and will trigger at any little thing that adds stress.
This becomes the lights or sounds or smells or weather changes…
These are all fairly normal occurrences we’ve dealt with for millions of years but when the brain is hyper-sensitized, it will trigger for the smallest things.
And then central sensitization comes in.
This is a process like hypersensitivity where the entire nervous system gets wound up.
It gets very tense and because of frequent triggers, it develops a pathway.
Just like every thought that we have, created a pathway of neurons in our brain, our frequent triggers go through a pathway as well.
But when we become centrally sensitized, this pathway has been frequently reinforced. Every time we trigger, the brain will go through this pathway.
Because it is using the pathway so often, it will make the pathway stronger. More energy through the pathway means it needs to reinforce it.
Just like a road, if there is lots of traffic, eventually the road will be expanded to more lanes to support more traffic.
But this is bad for us because it means it becomes easier to trigger.
So we want to prevent this by using other pathways whenever we can.
Stimulating our vagal nerve with things likes cold showers, exercising, meditation, learning new complex tasks etc.
These all help us get out of that pain pathway and stop reinforcing it.
Instead, our brain has to use other pathways that are healthier for us and reinforces them.
We want to avoid making the brain hypersensitive as soon as we can and develop new pathways for the brain to go through to avoid reinforcing pain.
3. Cortical spreading depression
Then we have cortical spreading depression which has been implicated in migraine with aura.
Cortical spreading depression is a series of events where our brain goes through a “blackout.”
If the brain isn’t creating enough energy to deal with its needs and if it’s being overrun with tasks it will function like a car or a hose.
If you slowly give a car gas, it will slowly rev up and speed up along with it. But if you give the car more gas than it can comfortably rev up with it will overrev and put much more strain on the engine than it normally would with the same amount of stress but with a slower increase.
Or if you have a garden hose, it’s connected but hasn’t been used in a while. You turn it on and the water rushes through the hose. But what happens is that the air has to go somewhere so it goes through this sputtering effect.
This is just like our brain.
The stress on it is high and there aren’t enough nutrients in the brain cells to deal with it. The body triggers the migraine cascade as a way to protect the brain and increase the energy coming to it.
This causes a sputtering effect throughout the brain where a wave of “blackout” goes through it known as cortical spreading depression.
If this blackout goes over a visual processing area of the brain then we will likely get visual symptoms like a classic migraine with aura with a fortification spectra.
But this is usually just temporary as the brain reboots and the protective pain phase of migraine ensues.
This means we want to avoid over-stressing the brain and make sure that it’s receiving enough of the nutrients it needs to deal with the stresses at hand.
4. Failing brain metabolism
This all points to bad brain metabolism. It is one of the most common causes of inflammation and oxidation in the brain that leads to excitotoxicity or brain cell death.
Too much stress + not enough nutrients to deal with it + not enough stress management + not enough of our foundational systems working properly = Serious brain problems
We want to support this, first and foremost by reducing stress load. But that is a given.
You have to take out as many areas of stress on your mind/body as possible.
Stress does not do anything for you except feed more problems.
But we need to support our nutrient intake as well and this means getting enough nutrients.
We have to make sure we get enough minerals through high-quality vegetables, bone broths, nuts, and seeds. If we need more like is commonly found with magnesium, calcium and zinc then we go out of our way to eat more of the foods high in them and supplement where necessary.
We have to feed our gut microbes because they help us create butyrate which is a type of fat. This gets produced when our body is fasting, in ketosis or when we feed our gut bacteria high-quality resistant starches.
We need to get enough vitamins and this is really crucial for the brain. But there are so many vitamins, we have to make sure we have base amounts of.
Just taking a multivitamin usually isn’t enough if your diet is SAD.
This is where we want to add in superfoods to our diet like organ meats and mollusks.
Again, supplementing where necessary as food may not always be enough especially if you are chronic.
Using whole food nutrition gives you the actual cells of other organisms which contain millions of nutrients all bound together as opposed to just pills and powders which the body has a harder time using.
5. Inflammatory/oxidative storm
This all leads to the one common cause that has been found to connect all head pains.
Oxidation and inflammation are running rampant in the chronic migraine brain.
But stopping it isn’t very straightforward because if this has been happening for a long time, the brain is wiring itself to keep producing it.
It’s on high alert and wants to protect itself as much as it can but the mechanisms it has to do so are very primal, like pain.
So we need every tool we can get that helps stop the inflammatory and oxidative storm.
Along with all of the above techniques mentioned, we need to provide a host of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods.
These provide the building blocks our body can use to protect itself and repair the damage.
Foods high in antioxidants are:
Purple, red, blue grapes
All of the berries
Dark green veggies
Some foods high in anti-inflammatory compounds are:
Seaweeds like dulse
Green leafy vegetables
When you can address the cause you will be much better suited to actually fix the issue and won’t have to rely on quick-fix medications that do nothing for your long-term health and can actually make everything worse.
To learn more about severe migraines see our post on status migrainosus and intractable migraines here.
Have you ever experienced a fortification spectra? Let me know in the comments below and share this with someone else who’s had them and may want to learn more.
Holistic Health Practitioner
Mark Canadic is a writer, speaker, holistic health practitioner and migraine community leader. Read Mark’s inspiring comeback story, “My Burnout and Brain Fires that Lead me to the Root.” Feel free to send Mark a message here.