Light therapy is the most effective way to treat SAD, says Stephen Josephson, Ph.D., clinical associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Just buy a light box and sit in front of it in the morning. “Thirty minutes is enough,” Josephson says. “The Center for Environmental Therapeutics offers these units; sometimes insurance will pay.”
Your eyes play a critical role in regulating the biochemistry and rhythms of your body. “For some people, their retinas are insensitive and therefore need more light to maintain normal functionality,” Josephson says. The more early-morning sunlight that enters your eyes, the less melatonin your body produces, making you less lethargic for the rest of the day.
Seasonal affective disorder brings with it a major diet-wrecking symptom: the craving of high-carb comfort foods. Don't be fooled. "It's like a drug," Josephson explains. "It has some anti-anxiety effects, but over time it has some negative effects, too." Abusing simple carbs, like chips and ice cream, is a sure way to derail your fitness goals.
“Inactivity hurts anyone prone to mood problems,” Josephson says. “Activities that make you feel accomplished or productive are helpful.” The effect of exercise on mood is well documented. Running, for example, has been scientifically proven to flood the brain with mood-boosting endorphins. But there's a catch: “You have to exercise every day if you want to see an effect on depression,” Josephson says.
A University of Vermont in Burlington study pitted light therapy against talk therapy to see which is more effective in treating SAD. The study included 177 people suffering from SAD who received six weeks of treatment with either form of therapy. (More specifically, the talk therapy was cognitive behavioral therapy, which taught subjects to challenge negative thoughts about dark winter months and to avoid behaviors like social isolation). Both groups had similar relief from their symptoms in the first winter after their initial treatment. But after two winters, the recurrence of depression symptoms occurred in 46 percent of those in the light therapy group, compared with only 27 percent of those in the talk therapy group.
To combat SAD, the Mayo Clinic suggests getting outside in nature (even if it's the side of your office building) every day. Take time to stroll through a nearby park or sit on a bench and soak up the sun—even if it's cold and cloudy. Outdoor light in general can do wonders for your mental and physical well-being, especially if you sneak some time within two hours of getting up in the morning.